It’s not as though Bob Dylan has been silent since the 2012 release of “Tempest.” In that time, the Bard of Hibbing has explored the Great American Songbook over the course of three albums (or five, depending on how you choose to count 2017′s three-disc “Triplicate”), put out two live sets (each a double), and has added one entry in his Bootleg Series almost every year.
But not one of the 55 (!) discs that make up those collections features Bob Dylan, today, performing the songs of Bob Dylan, today. That would be enough to make the release Friday of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” an event all by itself, even disregarding the fact that it’s the first batch of songs that he’s produced since they hung that pesky Nobel Prize in Literature around his neck. Eight years after “Tempest,” it closes the longest gap Dylan has ever gone between albums of original material. It’s worth noting that his previous record (seven years) was closed out by “Time Out of Mind,” which won the Grammy for album of the year. It’s possible that “Rough and Rowdy Ways” will suffer the same fate. It’s inconceivable that it won’t at least be nominated.
Like David Bowie’s “Blackstar,” the album is suffused with the unmistakable air of someone who understands that death is, if not nigh, then peeking over the horizon. The 79-year-old singer isn’t burnishing his legacy, exactly; if anyone’s legacy is ironclad already, it’s Dylan’s. But “Rough and Rowdy Ways” feels like he’s starting to close parentheses. He’s got an eye on mortality and he’s settling accounts. “Black Rider” sounds as if he’s trying to charm and cajole death into giving him a reprieve, even though he knows that it will only be temporary. He Frankensteins together a helpmeet in “My Own Version of You” against a musical backdrop that’s all Nick Cave gloom and glare, and the languid, wheezing “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is a retirement song by someone for whom time has stopped, neither moving forward nor having much interest in looking backward, instead knowing that one day it’ll just cease altogether.
But even if death hovers over the album, Dylan won’t be smothered by it. On the rollicking “False Prophet,” he croaks “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in” like it’s trouble. The rip-roaring stomp of “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” starts off in church and ends up winking at “a transparent woman in a transparent dress” who inspires a grape metaphor that sounds dirty even if it doesn’t quite scan. (“I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand,” he sings earlier, but that doesn’t mean we can’t listen to one.) And “Crossing the Rubicon” is a lurching, ramshackle blues with grumbles of raucousness that flare up for just one or two breaths at a time before settling back; it’s a cross between “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”-era Lucinda Williams and Captain Beefheart’s “China Pig.”
As blistering as those three cuts are — spacious and charged as if Dylan and his band were recorded live in an empty bar — Dylan’s not just going rambunctiously into that good night. He dons the sad, philosopher-drunk garb of Tom Waits in “I Contain Multitudes,” and if the “Key West” line (and sentiment) “If you lost your mind, you’ll find it there” could just as easily have come from Jimmy Buffett, the angle at which Dylan arrives there is entirely different. And the whispery invocation “Mother of Muses” is at once a love song, a loneliness song, a death song, a treatise on how history and culture are intertwined, and a song about the very nature of art and poetry.
It’s one of a handful of tracks on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” that directly, explicitly deal with the power of music, something that also anchors “Murder Most Foul.” With the hazy, frozen aura of a breezeless room with dust suspended in the air, Dylan’s longest-ever song is about JFK in the same way that Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” is about Anne Frank or that “American Pie” is about Buddy Holly; Kennedy’s dead eight lines in, and the 16 minutes that follow leap forward to explore the years and decades that spilled out in his assassination’s wake, snapping back periodically to the instigating moment of horror. But as the president — and maybe Dylan himself — faces the inevitable, what’s left is the songs he wants to hear one more time: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Anything Goes,” and many others. And then, right at the very end, “Murder Most Foul” itself. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is a hell of a last new Dylan album. Fingers crossed, it’s just the first.
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc