He ain’t no false prophet: Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways”

By Colin Haines

“Someday everything’s going to be beautiful, when I paint my masterpiece.” Bob Dylan has sung this song, “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” numerous times. At age 80, though, Dylan has painted plenty of masterpieces, one of his greatest being last year’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” an album which examines deeply the mystery of artistic creation and the role of art and the artist in society. 

Despite the album’s title, its opener is neither rough nor rowdy. A soft and gentle “I Contain Multitudes,” introduces us to the album, a song which takes its title from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Perhaps no other song could describe Dylan in such an accurate manner than this, where he tells us he’s “just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones,” while simultaneously playing “Beethoven’s sonatas, Chopin’s preludes.” After Beethoven’s pieces, the rough and rowdiness promised in the title finally finds its way into our consciousness with “False Prophet.”When Dylan began his career sixty years ago, he was labeled as the voice of the generation, as a prophet. Though, years later, when he turned heavily to gospel music, people thought he had become a false prophet of God. Perhaps Dylan thought of these accusations in this song’s writing process, but he’s never been one to dwell on the past.

We then arrive at “My Own Version of You,” which describes mixing Marlon Brando and Al Pacino in a jar to create a “robot commando.” The song’s descending bass adds to the pure spookiness of the lyrics, which could easily be seen as a metaphor for his own songwriting process. The gentleness of this album rises again on “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” and it seems that a three album foray into American pop standards has paid off in terms of Dylan’s voice. You forget his stature, and hear a true, raw and sweet statement in the sweetest love song he has written yet. The next track, “Black Rider” absolutely personifies the album’s stripped down feel, mysteriously condemning the “Black Rider.” Is the rider an ancient western character of recent times, or something else? Of course, with Dylan, we would never get a straight answer.

With a rolicking beat, we are introduced to an epic commentary on art and society with “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” In one breath, Dylan tells us that the “old time religion” is just what he needs, and in another he tells of failing to resist the temptations of a flirtatious woman. The juxtaposition of such sacred and secular subjects personifies the genre which has fascinated Dylan his entire life, the blues. Bluesmen often struggled in balancing their faith and the music they played, which was at times characterized as “the devil’s music.” We are again brought to the subject of creation in “Mother of Muses.” Almost like a hymn, Dylan sings gently, this prayer for inspiration, echoing the likes of Homer, and the poets of ancient times which Dylan identifies with more than his own Rock N’ Roll contemporaries.

In keeping with Dylan’s words, there are no metaphors in these words. We must imagine Dylan literally “Crossing the Rubicon,” the river which flows through Italy. Dylan crossed the river on “the 14th day of the most dangerous month of the year,” a reference not to the day the legendary Julius Caesar actually crossed the river, but when Caesar was killed on the Ides of March. Dylan’s interest in classical antiquity has paid off in terms of songwriting. Then, with a gentle accordion, Dylan takes on a trip down south on “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Specifically, we follow a character who is fleeing to the Florida Keys, a mystical place in Dylan’s world, all while keeping in touch with world events on the “pirate radio station.” The accordion seems to personify the South Florida breeze, and Dylan’s words are as magical as ever. For me, this is no doubt the high point of the album, and “Philosopher Pirate” may be Dylan’s best work of this century.

We close this album with a seventeen minute epic titled “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s first ever #1 hit song, which begins with President John F. Kennedy being “led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb,” and spinning off into a great world of American art. This song is less about the assasination of JFK, and more about how in time of collective trauma, art can heal. Perhaps this is his most timely song yet, more so than any of his “protest” songs of the 1960s. 

After 60 years, Bob Dylan is able to write with incredible wisdom he only wished he could have back in the 1960s. As rough as his voice can be on our ears at times, it brings forth more truth and emotion than any other. And finally, after 60 years, Dylan is at his creative and artistic height. This next chapter in his story has only begun.

Leave a Reply