Was Dylan’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ his best since ‘Blood on the Tracks?’
Editor’s Note: In 2020, during the midst of the pandemic, Bob Dylan released his first album of new material since 2012’s “Tempest.” We invited 10 distinguished writers to give their assessment of the album that many critics have been calling Dylan’s best since “Blood on the Tracks.”
Yes, This Really Was His Best Since BOTT, by Anthony DeCurtis
“The best Bob Dylan album since “Blood on the Tracks” — that mythical peak has been both something of a holy grail for Dylan obsessives and a lazy way for critics to overpraise the current Dylan effort they were supposed to be appraising. In many ways, Dylan fans have been more discerning than critics, far more willing to call Dylan out for his willfully monochromatic shows and disjointed albums in the past. As money tends to do, actually having to pay for your concert tickets and albums often proved to sharpen fans’ critical sensibilities and embolden their opinions.
But, look, I get it. It’s no fun trashing your idols, particularly one as revered as Dylan. You’ve got a million ideas about the guy and the tedious album you’re writing about supports none of them. The first time I got to write about Dylan in a prominent outlet was a 1986 review of “Knocked Out Loaded” in Rolling Stone. I described the album as a “slipshod patchwork,” a “conceptual mess” and, “ultimately, a depressing affair.” Fair enough, though I like the album better now than I did then. (Artists hate that.) Two years later, in an enthusiastic review of “Oh Mercy” – a review that was a sigh of relief as much as anything else — I noted that the album stood in marked contrast to the “unfocused nature” of Dylan’s recent work,“ which had indicated that “he had simply stopped caring about making records.” I remember a conversation with a friend during that haphazard mid-80s period in which he said that Dylan’s records had gotten so bad that they were making him reconsider the quality of the 60s work that had earned Dylan his reputation in the first place.
So why is “Blood on the Tracks,” rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece, the measure of every Dylan album that has come after it? There are practical reasons. My friend’s snarky remark aside, Dylan’s groundbreaking 60’s albums have proven so important and influential that they are impervious to comparison. Quite simply, if you were to assert that the new Dylan album was his best since “The Freewheeling Bob Dylan,” “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Blonde on Blonde,” no one would believe you. However, by time “Blood on the Tracks” came out in 1975, even Dylan’s most ardent fans had accepted the notion that he was capable of making bad records. The big chill of the 70’s had set in, and Dylan’s contemporaries had begun to wonder where their 60’s hopes had gone.
So it was the perfect time for a great Dylan comeback album, and “Blood on the Tracks” – the title says it all – addresses those feelings explicitly. “Tangled Up in Blue” evokes memories of a time when “there was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air,” only to have “the bottom” fall out and aimless wandering to follow. Those lost hopes were bound up in vanished lost friends – “All those people we used to know/They’re an illusion to me now” – who themselves had drifted off to wherever. The song presciently ends on an image of Dylan himself that pertains to this day: “Me, I’m still on the road, heading for another joint,” an inkling of the endless tour just beginning to shimmer like heat off the highway.
“Blood on the Tracks” also resonated because it’s Dylan’s most personal album. Without ever getting into specifics, it chronicles the tumultuous breakup of Dylan’s marriage to Sara Lowndes (once again, note the title), the mother of four of his children. As Me Decade divorces wreaked havoc on families across the country, the album’s complex, inextricable interplay of longing, anger and regret found a target in many listeners’ hearts. In a New York Times piece I later wrote about Jakob Dylan, he spoke about what he felt when listening to his father’s music, a subject of which he is an avid student. “When I’m listening to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ I’m grooving along just like you,” he said. “But when I’m listening to Blood on the Tracks, that’s about my parents.”
So which album is truly Dylan’s best since “Blood on the Tracks?” As I pondered that question before writing this essay, I was struck by how many serious contenders there are. “Desire,” “Oh Mercy” and “Time Out of Mind” leapt immediately to my thoughts. But I’m going to choose “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” the album whose rapturous reviews inspired this assignment. If I’m not in the right mood, I can pick at that album’s flaws. Musically, it’s undifferentiated and, while it’s been ridiculous for decades to think of Dylan creating anything like a “hit,” these songs bleed into each other so totally that if you walk into a room while the album is on, it’s difficult to tell immediately which song is playing. It’s also hard to think of anyone else interpreting these songs, a rarity for one of the world’s most frequently covered songwriters.
That said, I’ve been finding “Rough and Rowdy Ways” irresistible. The sense that the album is really one long song is now an essential part of its appeal to me. In this time of quarantine, days blend one into the next, day and night intermingle, the past creeps inexorably into the present. In that regard, the porous boundaries of these songs somehow feel just right. And if “Blood on the Tracks” summons a vision of the 60’s from the perspective of ten years down the line, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” takes on something like the span of Dylan’s entire life – which is to say, the cultural life of the past eight decades. I’ve found myself in a reflective mode during these days of isolation, so the tumbles of references – to songs, bands, singers, actors, poets, films – in these songs serve to excite my own deep personal associations. And the evocation of the promise of John Kennedy’s presidency in “Murder Most Foul” – as well as the horror of his assassination, the “seven seconds that broke the back of the American century” in Don DeLillo’s timeless phrase – calls our attention to the wasteland of our current presidency. DeLillo once told me that he met Thomas Pynchon one time, and, of course, I asked, “What did you talk about?” He smiled. “Rock & roll,” he said. “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is like my imagining of what that conversation must have been like.
In another twist, I really didn’t like the album’s title until I bothered to listen to Dylan’s source for it: Jimmie Rodgers’ “My Rough and Rowdy Ways.” In that song, a man is about to settle into a calm domestic life, but he’s irresistibly drawn to memories of his days of drinking and rambling. Those indulgences don’t seem like so much fun when doom surrounds you – and, as Dylan notes on “Blood on the Tracks,” “it’s doom alone that counts.” On that album he also sings, “all the while I was alone, the past was close behind.” Indeed, the past weighs heavily in this time of such an uncertain future.
One way to judge the greatness of an album is how well it captures its time. That’s why that assessment necessarily shifts as times change. That’s why the best Dylan album since “Blood on the Tracks” is “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” For the blood on our tracks. For the blood on the tracks ahead. For now.
Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor of Rolling Stone and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “Lou Reed: A Life.”
You’re Asking the Wrong Question, by Greil Marcus
To me ranking albums, paintings, buildings, poems, or anything else in art — including baseball teams, players and moments — makes no sense. I could care less what anybody, myself included, thinks are the best ten Rolling Stones songs, the three essential Emily Dickinson poems, or if “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “I Married a Communist,” “Sabbath’s Theater,” or “The Great American Novel” is Philip Roth’s best novel — isn’t it the one you’re reading when the question comes up? Doesn’t everyone have the luck to feel, in a moment that can be repeated by reading, listening, looking again, that this is beyond human intention and human ken, that this work fundamentally an inexplicable accident, whether it’s “Gimme Shelter” or Jackson Pollock’s “Exploring Alchemy?”
So in that sense the question of Bob Dylan’s best album since “Blood on the Tracks” is a waste of time. “Blood on the Tracks” is no milestone for me anyway. The material recorded in New York that remained on the album is slick, closed, finished with ironic twists, played without the element of chance: unlike the Minnesota recordings of “Tangled Up on Blue” and “Idiot Wind” that replaced versions made earlier, this is music that says not that anything can happen but that something already has. For me — and Dylan says this himself, too, somewhere I’m not locating at the moment — the marking point is “John Wesley Harding,” and every album after that (never mind “Blind Willie McTell,” “New Danville Girl,” and many more songs released and not) up until the kinship albums “Good As I Been to You,” “World Gone Wrong,” and “Time Out of Mind, is some kind of mistake, put-up job, a disguise you could see right through, a lie.
As “John Wesley Harding” did, “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong” allowed you to rehear all of Dylan’s music, and the world at large, in a new way, with values you didn’t understand as such (persistence, endurance, disappearance) replacing those that ruled the world (money, power, love, even honesty and truth). “Time Out of Mind” said, in its way, that everything that had led up to this music was false — that is, for a moment, or as long as you were letting the record play from “Love Sick” to “Highlands,” it made everything else sound like a cheat, a dodge, a not-quite, and I-take-that-back.
Except for “To Make You Feel My Love.” Billy Joel really can have that one.
Greil Marcus’ books include “Lipstick Traces: a Secret History of the 20th Century,” “Dead Elvis” and “Invisible Republic.”
The Two Bob Dylans — My Father’s and Mine, by Tatiana Garcia-Altagracia
The sounds of a big house in the south of Mexico City. A house full of books, albums, paintings, sculptures and dust. This was the place of my dad, a place filled with music, ideas and wonders.
My Dominican mother decided to move here after living in D.R, U.S.A and the late USSR; and by the time she met my father she already had a son and I was on the way. Jaime (Ha-i-me) on the other hand, was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had lived in the city for a while; he had traveled all around the U.S.A. surviving as a TA at Harvard and after some years he headed to Europe. He lived the bohemian life, worked and lived in Shakespeare & Co Bookshop and made some money taking Chemistry exams for people. By chance encounter, they met and later on and fell in love.
Jaime was not my biological father, but ever since I can remember, I thought of him as such. We had a special bond, he always embraced me as his daughter, and taught me that life could be unstructured, but one should always be aiming to get places. Jaime and I often had long conversations, about his Jewish heritage and history, about love, music, philosophy and literature. He encouraged me to be as curious about all the possibilities my mind wanted. He was my real dad, a man who chose to love me against all odds. He was truly the epitome of a rebel without and at the same time a cause. He broke all the standards and demands becoming a free soul that lived in the U.S.A and Europe. He studied hard, but also partied hard.
Our house, whose soul contained the scratching melodies of an old vinyl player in the middle of the living room, was always, for me, a reminder to not take life for granted. It is in this emotional embrace that the soundtrack of the early years of my life will always begin, with the music that my father played at home and on endless road trips. Bob Dylan was the narrator of his life.
I thought it could be easy to explain in simple lines the two Bob Dylans in my life, The one of my father, who he admired, followed and played endlessly at home, and the Dylan I got to experience and embrace “on my own.”
It’s 1998, I’m 18 years old and the idea of a global world is kicking in, one movement followed by another. Grunge was born, and grunge died, individualism was reinforced, labels were demolished, values were left to doubt. We couldn’t live the 60’s or 70’s of our parents, nor the superficial confused 80’s childhood, so we were left full of doubts mixed with an existentialist fog, questioning where ideals laid and made art out of it.
I always heard Dylan as the utopian life my father believed in, filled with conviction, purpose and breakage of all conservatism. A life where love was meant to be chosen and given out freely. But I wasn’t the girl in those lyrics, the skinny, long-legged, ethereal Northern, passionate comprehended woman that could be one of his muses. The world had changed, and I could no longer accommodate Dylan’s body of work into my own experience. I was an Afro-latin girl developing and struggling to find her own identity within my skin color and full body in a depressed inner world that didn’t make sense. It felt like a long-lived false utopia of a man’s world.
But when “Time Out Of Mind” came out, for the very first time I heard Bob Dylan with my own soul. Bob Dylan had decided that the world could be listening after all. Using the pseudonym Jack Frost, he made an album covered with a dark aura and the vision of a 56-year-old man, with the gaze of a peregrine falcon who scrutinizes and feels the problems, the deception, the lack of authenticity, everything intertwined with the beauty and positive things in life.
It is surprising, sepulchral, it echoes, it has life, it beats. The songs are compact, we listen to organs, keyboards, frenetic strings to strum, a little time to slide guitars. We have 11 works of art, the ballads; that one song that marked my enchantment “To Make You Feel My Love” was for me the anthem of coming to learn and view the world I was unfit for and what my expectations were, that my childhood was long gone and the future was so uncertain that nothing was granted. Besides thinking of it as a romantic relationship song I felt it like a note extracted from my journal dedicated to the world, wanting to be accepted by it. You find on this album roughness, babbling, authenticity, passion. Rough tracks, where guitars sound like sandpaper, a rusty knife scraping a metal sharpening stone. Ending with “Highlands”, a narration of various life experiences of an author who wraps it in a perfect bow.
“Time Out Of Mind” reinforced for me that we are all transforming and being molded by life, that we are the authors of ourselves and that this process is messy and confusing. We are all supposed to be here, and it is within the comfort of thinking that all is set and done that boredom and dullness arrive. The Bob Dylan of my dad was the one that told the story of his life drifting, constantly changing in his perspective of being a rolling stone. My Dylan is the one who alludes to the wisdom and guidance to know that even through the years, we can stand confused and be transformed. As he even proposes in “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a confident voice of only one thing: “When you think you’ve lost everything, you find out you can lose a little more.”
The body of work that he has created is proof of time, of life experienced and lived against being analyzed, we’ve grown with him, and he has a perfect way of expressing it, like a medieval troubadour courting life, the perfect witness and acknowledging that there’s a Bob Dylan for all and that is where his greatness lies.
Tatiana García Altagracia is a film and media producer based in New York and Mexico City. She is also the host and producer of the Podcast “Negritud” at Convoy Network. twitter @Tatatiu
Into Liza Minnelli’s Hellish Landscape, by Dan Epstein
It was September 1989, and I’d just been hired as a clerk at See Hear, a small record store in Chicago. I’d spent the summer in a melancholic haze of post-college graduation wastreldom, smoking cheap weed and drinking cheaper beer (where have you gone, Carling Black Label?), and spending countless hours in communion with my Tascam four-track recorder as I attempted to write the songs that would hopefully catapult my band Lava Sutra to something along the lines of alternative-rock stardom. It had been fun, at least when I wasn’t being overwhelmed by crushing anxiety and blistering self-doubt. But now my meager savings were running dry, and it was time to get a job.
I had friends who worked at some of the city’s cooler used record stores, like Dr. Wax and Second Hand Tunes — vinyl-centric shrines to musical awesomeness, where you could happily unearth all manner of crucial masterpieces and mind-blowing obscurities. See Hear wasn’t that kind of operation. Though it shared a name with a fantastic fanzine shop on St. Mark’s Place in New York City, this store was actually about as far from the cutting edge as it was possible to get while still being in the music business. We stocked only new compact discs and a smattering of high-profile cassette and vinyl releases (the latter of which would soon be eradicated to make room for more CDs), all of them released by major labels. The seeds of the 1991 alt-rock explosion had been planted and were already beginning to sprout, but you wouldn’t have known it to look at our endcaps and window displays, where the likes of Paula Abdul, Huey Lewis and Don Henley held bland sway.
You also wouldn’t have known it to look at the dreary options in our store’s tiny play bin, which couldn’t have held more than a dozen CDs. I still shudder uncontrollably thinking about some of the albums it contained when I first started working there: Things like Cher’s “Heart of Stone,” Liza Minnelli’s “Results,” Simply Red’s “A New Flame” and “Cycles,” the Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald-free comeback album. I had to hear all of those on a daily basis, sometimes on repeat; it was like being trapped in some fiendish audio experiment conducted by the CIA.
It was into this hellishly barren musical landscape that Bob Dylan’s “Oh Mercy” arrived. I’ll admit that I gave it a grudging welcome, at best; while I absolutely loved the classic Dylan records I’d grown up with, I’d pretty much given up on him years earlier. (I’m pretty sure the first time I ever greeted a new record with “What the fuck is this?” was during the summer of 1978, when one of my dad’s friends plopped the just-released “Street Legal” onto our living room turntable.) Also, the big buzz around “Oh Mercy” was that it was produced by Daniel Lanois, who was lauded for his work on U2’s “The Unforgettable Fire” and “The Joshua Tree,” two records that I absolutely loathed. But when a promo CD of “Oh Mercy” somehow found its way into our play bin, I figured it would at least provide a welcome alternative to another spin of Gloria Estefan’s “Cuts Both Ways.”
“Oh Mercy” turned out to be much, much more than that, of course. After three straight studio records (1985’s “Empire Burlesque,” 1986’s “Knocked Out Loaded” and 1988’s “Down in the Groove”) where he’d sounded distracted if not completely disinterested, and one live album with the Grateful Dead (1989’s imaginatively-titled “Dylan & the Dead”) where neither party sounded particularly stoked to be there, it was as if he’d suddenly emerged from the fog with a renewed sense of focus and purpose. “Political World,” the album’s jittery opener, set the tone by casting a withering glance at a civilization charred and scarred by injustice, greed, squandered love and ignored wisdom. You could tell from the way Dylan spat out the lyrics that he actually meant business this time; ditto for the heartbroken weariness of his delivery on the album’s second track, “Where Teardrops Fall,” and the sizzling intensity he brought to every other track on the record.
Though “Political World” and the equally lean-and-mean “Everything Is Broken” caught some critical flak at the time for somehow being too generalized and “not political enough” in their appraisal of our contemporary malaise, there was simply no way to miss the brilliance of “Most of the Time,” “What Good Am I?” “What Was It You Wanted” and “Shooting Star,” four of the most close-to-the-bone slices of heartbreak and post-romantic disillusionment that Dylan had waxed since, well, “Blood On the Tracks.” Likewise, one couldn’t fail to appreciate that the prayerful “Ring Them Bells” was a legitimately great (and profoundly beautiful) update of “Chimes of Freedom,” or that the demonic waltz “Man in the Long Black Coat” and the excoriating sermon “Disease of Conceit” both felt as old as time itself yet still chillingly applicable to the modern world.
Given Lanois’ involvement, I was expecting big, overwrought choruses and cold sheets of digitally-delayed guitars, but there was nothing like that to be found on “Oh Mercy.” Instead, the music was spacious yet claustrophobic, like the darkness of a humid summer night. (The record was cut at Lanois’ home studio in New Orleans, which probably contributed to its haunted atmosphere.) The record’s main musical motif was the throb and whine of Lanois’ dobro, but nothing got in the way of Dylan’s voice or songs. In my mind, I could picture Dylan performing the songs on a small stage, bathed in a soft golden spotlight, while the other musicians (who included guitarist Mason Ruffner and percussionist Cyril Neville) lingered just out of the spotlight’s reach. In an era where most major label releases seemed choked with every digital bell and whistle imaginable, the album’s organic and intimate sound was as refreshing as a deep swig of cold spring water.
I played “Oh Mercy” during my work shifts for months, and not just because it was one of the only decent things in the See Hear play bin. Every day for forty minutes or so, its songs re-grounded me in things far more important than whatever early-20s angst I happened to be grappling with at the moment, while its music mercifully took me away from glitzy emptiness of end-of-the-80s pop music and culture.
Old Town, where See Hear was located had been one of Chicago’s hippest and artsiest districts during the 60s and 70s, but by the time I started working there, it was already veering hard into gentrified yuppiedom. While it’s true that I am legally required to drop a “High Fidelity” reference into any story about working in a record store, it’s also true that a significant percentage of our customers actually did resemble Tim Robbins’ ponytailed character from the film, in both looks and attitude. We did have some great, knowledgeable and fun regulars — including quite a few now-famous folks from Second City, which was just across the street — but the majority of the customers I waited on were people who saw music as little more than a lifestyle accessory. They wanted whatever was popular, or whatever might provide a relaxing soundtrack for a drive in their BMW or a bath in their candle-ringed tub.
“Hey, there’s a new Bob Dylan album out,” I remember one ponytailed yuppie dude informing his equally ponytailed friend while I was ringing up their purchases.
“C’mon,” his friend sneered, pulling out his Amex Gold Card to pay for a copy of Yanni’s “Niki Nana.” “I’m not into that shit.”
I was, though, and still am. “Oh Mercy” still sounds fresh to me, and its songs and sounds still resonate with me deeply — perhaps even more so now, in this age of naked venality (just ask Bruce Springsteen, who recently dedicated his recording of “Disease of Conceit” to Donald Trump) and pandemic-related paralysis, where I find myself reading H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories for comfort because they’re less chilling than what’s actually in the news.
Bob Dylan has obviously made some other great records since 1989, but at a time where it sometimes really does feel like (to quote “Man in the Long Black Coat”) “People don’t live or die/People just float,” “Oh Mercy” is the rock that I keep floating back to for comfort, for catharsis, for slap-in-the-face real talk. His best since “Blood On the Tracks?” Yeah, this is the one I’m going with.
Dan Epstein is a contributing music critic for the Forward.
No Dylan album will surpass ‘Stormy Season,’ by Adam Langer
When I got the text from a friend of mine, asking if I’d heard Bob Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” I hadn’t yet had a chance to listen to it all the way through.
“Honestly, the music isn’t much,” my friend wrote. “But the lyrics are amazing.”
She quoted a stanza from “Key West,” her favorite song on the album: “Shining blossoms on these toxic lands. They can make you dizzy. I’d like to hit you but I can’t.”
When I finally did listen to the album, two things struck me. My friend was right; the lyrics were great. Also, hers were wrong.
At the same time, though, I wasn’t sure which were better — the ones Dylan actually sang or the ones my friend thought she’d heard Dylan sing. That’s the sort of artist Dylan has always been — reinventing, singing in different voices, recording multiple versions of the same song, changing lyrics or muttering them so you have to guess what they are. His music can be a Rorschach test; the meaning depends in large part on what you bring to it.
Thinking about all this took me back to the fall of 1996. I was in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, working a thankless volunteer gig, stuffing envelopes for the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. My supervisor was a smiley-faced, blonde-haired, 24-year-old named Melissa. During a break, the two of us took a drive in her Ford Escort over to the 7-11 to buy Slurpees for the whole volunteer team.
The front seat of Melissa’s car was pristine, but the back was filled with hundreds of cassette tapes. She said she had a boyfriend in New York who worked for Columbia Records and he was always sending her demos and advance copies of albums. She hadn’t listened to most of them; when she was in the car, she preferred listening to the news or talk radio. “Seriously, take as many as you want,” she said. “I’m not gonna listen to them anyway.”
I rummaged through the tapes and picked out about a half-dozen, figuring I might review a couple for one of the local alternative weeklies. But that night, after my gig was over and I was still riding on a caffeine and sugar Slurpee high, I only listened to one — Bob Dylan’s “Stormy Season.” It wasn’t even in a cassette holder, and the label, seemingly printed on a typewriter, looked like an afterthought. But, just seconds in, after the echoing, whispered opening stanzas of “Butcher’s Crew” were over and the harmonica started to wail, I was hooked. “This ain’t something you ever heard me sing before,” Dylan snarled.
These songs — harsh yet brooding; deadly serious yet caustically funny — were miles away from the haunted nostalgia of Dylan’s most-recent collections of folk songs. And the immediacy of the production seemed like an apology, or at least a corrective to the indifferent muddle and Synsonics production that sunk “Down in the Groove” and “Empire Burlesque” respectively.
Unlike many previous albums that Dylan sabotaged by leaving his best songs on the cutting-room floor, “Stormy Season” was relentless in quality and intensity. Forget about “Blood on the Tracks”; this was the most emotionally raw and defiantly political album Dylan ever produced. From the marriage of Biblical and classical references in “Apollo’s Love” to the spoken-word interlude about Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army in “Police State” to the shouldn’t-work-and-yet-somehow-it-does duet with Barbra Streisand on “No Compassion,” this was a newly-energized artist who, for the first time in years, sounded as though he had something left to prove.
“I’ll keep holdin’ onto that hank o’ your hair/Just like Dorothy Parker, you led me halfway there,” Dylan sang, executing the back-and-forths in “Abraham’s Altar” so deftly that it was impossible to say whether he sang both voices in one recording session or was performing a duet with old recordings of himself as a young man.
I lived only a couple of miles from the campaign headquarters, but I drove for hours that night — all the way up Lake Shore Drive then all the way down, again and again, blasting “Stormy Season.” In an album with so many high points, it’s hard to pick out a favorite, but if I had to choose one, it would probably be the eight-minute title track with its apocalyptic visions of “graveyard matchbooks and an arsonist’s blaze/embraced by freak-show lovers shadowed in the moonlight haze.” Even now, whenever I hear that song, I imagine myself alone in my car on the road, watching waves crash, flooding the paths along Lake Michigan, inspired by an artist who still had the power to move me.
The next day at Clinton-Gore HQ, I wanted to thank Melissa for loaning me the cassettes. But, of course I couldn’t because she didn’t exist.
I would have liked to listen to “Stormy Season” again too, but it doesn’t seem to exist either; it was just one of those many Dylan rumors that circulated during the early days of the Internet — lost recordings of the supergroup The Masked Marauders; unreleased demos featuring duets with Dylan and Paul McCartney; an abandoned album recorded in Chicago with David Bromberg; a third volume of Traveling Wilburys’ tunes featuring Elvis Costello.
In the years since “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan has produced some work of unparalleled brilliance. More often than not, when I’m cleaning my apartment and looking for a record to play, I find myself gravitating towards “Slow Train Coming,” “Modern Times” and the concert record “Real Live.” For me, though, he’ll never surpass “Stormy Season.” The best album is always the one you create in your own mind.
Adam Langer is the Forward’s senior editor.
When Dylan Painted His Masterpiece, by Seth Rogovoy
It’s as predictable as death and taxes. Bob Dylan releases a new album and critics hyperventilate that it is his best since his masterful 1975 album, “Blood on the Tracks.” The latter was an acoustic song cycle largely about the dissolution of a marriage (his marriage?), and it does indeed stand the test of time as a marker for all that was to follow. The only albums in Dylan’s entire catalog that vie with “Blood on the Tracks” for critical supremacy are his two mid-60’s classics, the back-to-back albums “Highway 61 Revisited” (1965) and “Blonde on Blonde” (1966). It doesn’t get any better than that, by Dylan or anyone, with the possible exception of the Beatles’ “Revolver” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” (Discuss.)
So if “Blood on the Tracks” still stands as Dylan’s greatest album since 1975, then which subsequent collection of new songs – not counting live albums, compilations, collections of archival material, and albums featuring other people’s songs (one Christmas album, two folk song collections, and three devoted to pre-rock pop standards) – truly deserves praise as “the best Dylan album since ‘Blood on the Tracks’?”
When I was first asked this question, a few albums came instantly to mind. The two records Dylan made with Daniel Lanois in the producer’s chair – 1989’s “Oh Mercy” and 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” – have always been near the top of my list. Both moody and evocative, boasting some of the best songs of his career, they turn out in hindsight to be flawed by the very production touches I had always enjoyed. Today, listening with new ears, the producer’s heavy hand with the soundscapes and effects placed behind “Oh Mercy” numbers such as “Man in the Long Black Coast” and “Most of the Time” make the album sound more like a Daniel Lanois album than one by Bob Dylan. Likewise, the Grammy Award-winning late-career 1997 comeback, “Time Out of Mind” – boasting compelling meditations on mortality including “Not Dark Yet” and “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” – is undermined by Lanois’s all-too-literal decision to make Dylan sound like he had already died and is singing from inside his tomb.
Having disposed of those two, I went back and listened to every studio album Dylan has released since “Blood on the Tracks” – 17 albums in all, from 1976’s “Desire” through last month’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” It was not an unpleasant way to spend a few days, and almost every album I listened to – with the exception of genuine clunkers like his mid-to-late 1980s efforts, “Knocked Out and Loaded” and “Down in the Groove” – made its case for itself.
“I’ve got epic songs like ‘Changing of the Guards’ and mystically inclined tunes like ‘Senor’,” said “Street Legal.”
“I’ve got passionate performances, great horn arrangements, and Jesus on my side – to say nothing of producer Jerry Wexler,” said “Slow Train Coming.”
“Shot of Love” boasted about its funky title track and the instant classic, “Every Grain of Sand,” while “Infidels” bragged about enigmatic songs like “Jokerman” and “I and I” and sweet guitar licks by Mark Knopfler. (“Yes,” I replied, “but you omitted two of your all-time classic songs, ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Foot of Pride,’ from the final release. What were you thinking?”)
The string of post-“Time Out of Mind” recordings all made strong cases for themselves, too. “‘Love and Theft’,” “Modern Times,” and “Together Through Life” found Dylan searching for that elusive blend of roots-rock, pop, swing, blues, and country that would come to define his late-career sound. “Tempest” from 2012 has the funky rocker “Pay in Blood.” Even 1985’s cheesy “Empire Burlesque” called out, “Hey, I’ve got ‘Dark Eyes’,” a terrific acoustic guitar song that was tacked onto the end of what otherwise was something of a sonic travesty. A phrase from “Idiot Wind” best describes the results of my sonic expedition: “Now everything’s a little upside down … What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good.”
Through all the highs and all the lows and through re-listening to “Blood on the Tracks” to hear what made it so great in the first place, a somewhat modest contender emerged. Much to my surprise, the best album Dylan has made since “Blood on the Tracks” was his 1976 follow-up album, “Desire.” Other than its fatal flaw that keeps it from equaling or surpassing “Blood on the Tracks” – by that I mean the song “Joey,” a long, leaden ode to New York City mobster Joey Gallo that nearly sinks the whole ship in shoes of cement – the album is rich with some of Dylan’s best songwriting and performances and an overall aesthetic that rings true and authentic in a way that the Lanois albums and “Empire Burlesque” never were.
Plus, it has liner notes by Allen Ginsberg and harmonies by Emmylou Harris.
The album opens dramatically. The first thing you hear on “Hurricane” – about the false conviction and imprisonment of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter — is an acoustic guitar being played tentatively, as if someone is just testing out the instrument. Two measures in, a bass plucks a couple of notes. Two measures after that, drums kick in and pull the song out of the driveway, followed quickly by the appearance of a violin behind the wheel, introducing a melodic figure that will soon duet with Dylan’s urgent vocals. In cinematic storyteller mode – most of the song is written in the form of a screenplay — Dylan drops the listener right into the opening scene, replete with stage directions: “Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night / Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall / She sees a bartender in a pool of blood / Cries out ‘My god, they’ve killed them all.’”
Listening today, however, the lines from “Hurricane” that most resonate from beyond space and time are these:
“[Rubin] had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down/When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road/ Just like the time before and the time before that/In Paterson that’s just the way things go/If you’re Black you might as well not show up on the street/‘Less you wanna draw the heat.
Keep in mind, Bob Dylan wrote these lines 45 years ago.
“Desire” was recorded in just a few sessions that took place in summer and fall 1975 and was released on January 5, 1976 – the first week of America’s bicentennial celebration. It was no coincidence. “Hurricane,” the album “Desire,” and the contemporaneous tour – the famed Rolling Thunder Revue – in no small way marked Dylan’s return to social activism. His previous albums from the 1970s – “New Morning,” “Planet Waves,” and “Blood on the Tracks” – found the so-called Voice of a Generation turning inward, musing on the joys of love and family life, exploring spirituality, and cataloging the pain and anguish that follows in the wake of a broken relationship.
While Dylan had not turned totally solipsistic – “Idiot Wind” on “Blood on the Tracks” was a pointed indictment of American hypocrisy (“Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol”) and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” on that same album, explored political corruption, possibly in reference to the Watergate scandal – Dylan hadn’t written an overtly topical protest song since the early 1960s, with the exception of the obscure, 1971 non-album track, “George Jackson,” about the murder of the eponymous Black Panther leader by prison guards at Soledad Prison in Northern California. Those who didn’t understand that — as Dylan himself once said —every song of his is in some way a “protest song” finally had their appetites for Dylan’s political engagement sated, at least temporarily. (Dylan also performed two huge benefit concerts for Carter’s legal defense fund, at Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Houston Astrodome. After repeated retrials, Carter was eventually freed.)
After the album explodes with its torrential “Hurricane” opener, the quirky story-song “Isis” resets the table. Another feature for violinist Scarlet Rivera, duetting with Dylan’s own harmonica, the song starts with a wedding scene and descends into a comic-horror travelogue of death and despair before circling back around to the narrator’s wedding day, almost in “Groundhog Day” fashion.
“Mozambique” follows, a kind of antidote to “Isis” that describes an uncomplicated romantic idyll in a faraway land. Seemingly without irony, the song could well have been adopted as the theme for Mozambique’s state travel bureau.
Then the mood shifts to the dark, mournful strains of “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” a song of troubled love, accompanied by haunting, klezmer-like fiddle passages by Rivera and Dylan at his most cantorial, veritably incorporating the krekhts, kneytshn, and tshoks of the Old World khazn. Or as Ginsberg wrote in his liner notes, proving himself to be an astute musicologist: “Voice lifts in Hebraic cantillation never heard before in U.S. song. ancient blood singing – a new age, a new Dylan again redeemed ‘ cantillating like synagogue cantor.
“Oh, Sister” continues in the same musical and lyrical vein, hinting at “forbidden love” that will be made manifest in the album’s penultimate song, “Black Diamond Bay.” The song “Romance in Durango” connects the album’s Gypsy sounds to those of Mexico, in another deliriously troubled tale of travel, tribalism and doomed love, often assumed to have been inspired by the filming a few years earlier of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (filmed on location in Durango, Mexico), in which Dylan starred as a character called Alias. “Romance” crossfades directly into “Black Diamond Bay,” perhaps the album’s most fully realized tragic travel romance, replete with an international cast of characters, a suicide attempt, a blackout, a loser gambling, a violent rainstorm (a hurricane in a nod to the album opener?), a volcano, a fire, and a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry.
The album fittingly and gorgeously concludes with the still-shocking-to-this day, intimate number, “Sara,” to whom the singer pleads, “Don’t ever leave me, don’t ever go.” While fans have read autobiography in Dylan songs from almost day one, here was the first and only time that Dylan didn’t even pretend not to be writing about himself. The song title itself is the first giveaway, as Sara was the name of Dylan’s wife at the time, the mother of his first five children. And if news and gossip reports had not already indicated that Bob and Sara’s marriage was in trouble, “Blood on the Tracks” all but cataloged it – their son, Jakob Dylan, of Wallflowers fame, once said hearing that album is like eavesdropping on a conversation between his parents. But “Sara” breaks the fourth wall (in spite of Jacques Levy), both in the use of the name of his real-life wife and in the reference to one of Dylan’s own songs from the mid-Sixties, when he sings the line, “Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel writin’ ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you.” Dylan had never written anything like that before and he never would again. And as far as Sara in song went, the “sweet virgin angel, sweet love of my life” would be replaced two years later by a “Miss X” about whom the singer “never know[s] what the poor girl’s gonna do to me next,” in “New Pony” on the worthy album “Street Legal.”
“Desire” does have one problem or footnote, however. All the songs on the album except for “Sara” and “One More Cup of Coffee” are co-credited to Dylan and theater director and psychologist Jacques Levy. What is one to do with that information? Are these genuinely Bob Dylan songs or should they fall into a separate category of Dylan co-writes (which would include the 2009 album, “Together Through Life,” most of whose songs are co-credited to Dylan and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter)? Dylan once told an interviewer that Levy was primarily responsible for the lyrics to “Joey,” which would go a long way toward explaining or excusing that number. The rest sound enough like Dylan songs that I would consider them part of his core opus, and if Levy provided some technical support here and there, so what.
Overall, “Desire” is one of the most coherent, well-rounded, unified and organic-sounding albums of Dylan’s career. Little or nothing comes between singer and listener, and over time it has proven to be one of Dylan’s most popular, critical, and commercial successes.
“Desire” is no “Blood on the Tracks,” but it is, literally and figuratively, the next best thing.
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward, and the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).
The Best Dylan Comeback Album (Which Had No Dylan Songs on It), by Bill Wyman
Bob Dylan always liked stories about people who get up and go somewhere, and then come back. They are constructs about change; in the end, the subject comes back — and is a different person. For a young man thirsting to grow, you can see the appeal. Indeed, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” one of Dylan’s earliest songs about a journey like that, leaving the apocalyptic stuff aside, can be read as a simple story of a kid coming back to tell his parents what’s what. It’s not surprising such a tale resonated in a generation beginning to make its influence felt on the world.
The trope goes through a lot of his work; what might be his best album, “Blood on the Tracks,” begins with his most famous song along those lines, “Tangled Up in Blue” (“So now I’m going back again…”) and the bloody centerpiece of the followup, “Desire,” contains his most scorching one (“Isis”: I went back to find Isis / Just to tell her I love her”).
Dylan drifted after those albums. His most resolute work in the years since may paradoxically be an album of songs written by others. In typical Dylan fashion, the road to it wasn’t easy. In 1992, Dylan recorded a bunch of folk songs at his home studio, and gave it to Columbia as his next album. It was called “Good As I Been to You” and it sounded then, and still does today, dumb and callow.
But then the next year he recorded, submitted and released … another album of covers, these more from the realm of deep and forgotten folk blues, and this one cut to the bone.
The result was “World Gone Wrong,” a song cycle about blood, death, impotence (over and over again), blindness, homelessness, prostitution, perhaps even incontinence, and journeys as well. It all added up to a much more convincing (and corporeal) bundle of sins that he could muster in his so-called Christian albums.
The performances framing this devil’s carnival are resolutely acoustic, nothing but a lone man and a lone voice articulating the songs with the help of a guitar and occasionally a harmonica. Some tracks are traditional ballads, like “Two Soldiers,” which is apparently a Civil War-era song passed on to him by Jerry Garcia. It’s about a soldier who asks a friend to take word back if he dies in battle. Both men, in the end, are killed, and there’s no one to take their tales home. Dylan singing is delicate and respectful; there’s no sign of the bleating and blurred syntax of some of his other work, on stage and on record, around this time.
The other songs lean more to the sanguinary. There is a run at “Stagger Lee,” a blues classic about the killing of a man named Billy by a man named Stagger Lee. The song has a history so deep, and a story encompassing so many tendrils, that there are literally books written about it. Dylan takes on a “Stack a Lee” version, concentrating, Coen Brothers-like, on a piece of haberdashery:
Stack-A-Lee turned to Billy Lyons and he shot him right through the head/Only taking one shot to kill Billy Lyons dead./All about that John B. Stetson hat.
The title of “Blood in My Eyes For You” pretty much tells the baleful story:
Woke up this morning, feeling blue/Seen a good-lookin’ girl, can I make love with you/ Hey, hey, babe, I got blood in my eyes for you
There’s cruelty, desolation, and dysfunction everywhere: “All the friends I even had are gone”; “Feel like a broke-down engine, ain’t got no drive at all”; “If I didn’t leave you I would have to kill you dead.”
The freak show goes on. Animals begin to talk. After the singer in “Love Henry” murders her lover Henry and throws his body down a well, she finds that her pets don’t look at her the same way:
I won’t fly down, I can’t fly down/And light on your right knee./A girl who would murder her own true love/Would kill a little bird like me.
“World Gone Wrong” is also notable for one last thing — its liner notes. Dylan contributed discursive and impressionistic notes to a few of his early albums.; their presence here is an arresting reminder of the emotions roiling beneath Dylan’s psyche at this time. He gives allusive, impressionistic accounts of the song choices. On “Delia”: “Does this song have rectitude? you bet. toleration of the unacceptable leads to the last round-up. the singer’s not talking from a head full of booze.”
And the title song: “‘strange things are happening like never before’” strange things alright — strange things like courage becoming befuddled & nonfundamental. evil charlatans masquerading in pullover vests & tuxedos talking gobbledygook, monstrous pompous superficial pageantry parading down lonely streets on limited access highways.”
There is also that extraordinary Dylan precognition: “Technology to wipe out truth is now available.”
We know now that the years leading up to and those directly after the beginning of the Never Ending Tour saw the singer at a low point, questioning everything he was doing. An apercus or two here suggest his continuing preoccupation with the damage that fame and fate had wreaked upon him. “No man gains immortality thru public acclaim,” he says at one point. And also: “Fame is a trick.”
That’s probably what has propelled his great last journey, the Never Ending Tour, over 30-plus years, and 3000 shows. The last song on World Gone Wrong is “Lone Pilgrim,” which features the grimmest journey of all:
The call of my master compelled me from home,/No kindred or relative nigh./I met the contagion and sank to the tomb,/My soul flew to mansions on high.
As has been noted innumerable times over the years, the chorus of “no direction home” on “Like a Rolling Stone” comprises highly loaded implications of both promise and sacrifice. Every journey, Dylan knew, comes at a cost.
Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.
Will Men Keep Explaining Dylan to Me Into Eternity, by Jennifer Gilmore
I was five when “Blood on the Tracks” was released (to mixed reviews) and the only Dylan I knew then, indeed the only Dylan I would hear before high school, was my father’s “Best of Dylan,” the singer-songwriter silhouetted against the blue cover, his wild Jewish hair shot with light, harmonica to his lips.
I didn’t come to the Dylan as I now view him until a guy I dated for five minutes my sophomore year of high school gave me an “Empire Burlesque” cassette. Take away the synth, and that album comes from the same place as “Blood on the Tracks,” both gorgeous medleys of ache, and it turns out that was what I sought. In everything. That 1985 album is in many ways the best and most consistent album to come since “Blood on the Tracks.” But other beauties preceded it, including “Desire” (with the backup vocals of Emmylou Harris and Ronee Blakely, powerful and excellent) and “Infidels” (Dylan’s return to the secular after converting from Judaism to Christianity, also excellent). It was a decade of exceptional work.
“Listen to the feeling, not the voice,” T said when I parroted the ridicule many in my generation felt for Dylan’s singing voice. Come to think of it, I was always being told how to feel about Dylan by men making an introduction, a tension I have felt consistently. My interest in Dylan has been big and bright and transformative, a highlight of my youth that was not all folly, and one that brought me to music and writing and resistance and various transgressions.
But that genuine interest also brought complicity with men: I would be the kind of girl who talked about Dylan lyrics, decoding them, like dreams, with the men who always seemed to know more than I did. It was a world of men, even though countless female singer songwriters were also making longstanding important work. I am reminded of my grandmother who once told me she went to law school so she could talk to her husband, a judge. I let men tell me about Bob Dylan over and over again.
It was J who gave me my first copy of “Blood on the Tracks,” Dylan’s 15th studio album. We were in college and we both had other lovers but there was something charged about this gift and my subsequent love of/ obsession with this album. I can see myself still in that room on Dartmouth Street in Waltham, Mass., playing the album, now a CD (along with Miles Davis’s “Someday My Prince Will Come”) on repeat. In all the genres of music I have loved — punk, ska, mod, jazz, rockabilly, rock, musical theater, new wave, pop, opera — I have always liked the sad songs.
“If You See Her Say Hello” was like a calling card for missed opportunity and at 20, I already thought I had missed all of mine. A laugh now, but that song holds the past present and future for me in one breath: I wanted you, I had wanted you, I will always want you. The listener is the subject and the object. Or the speaker and the spoken to. And while I skipped over the eight-minute one-liner that is “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” I listened to “You’re a Big Girl Now,” “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome,” and “Simple Twist of Fate” over and over again.
I have since seen Dylan perform countless times, in different stages of his life and mine. I have listened to many bootlegs, and The Bootlegs, and the Basement Tapes, and I have read his terrible novel, many biographies, and his “autobiography.”
One could call this scholarship and, in studying Dylan, I have learned to read the small bits of his life to which we are allowed admission. “Blood on Tracks” is powerful because of the filament between his access to his own suffering and our access to it. He was heartbroken over the estrangement from his first wife, and we got to see what blood on the page looked like for him. The blood of the country? We had seen it. The blood of criticism, and ridicule, the blood of all manner of transformation, we had seen it. The album came out of a period of respite after frantic touring, allowing him the space to sit with heartache. But that rawness is conflated by the control over and experimentation with the craft of music making in a variety of musical and storytelling traditions. We have the sense that Dylan, a recluse of the heart, is showing us his ruin, through what happened to the object of his love. It’s a dizzying array of perspectives and modes of time.
The next album to do this and what I believe to be his best work since then is “Time Out of Mind.” 22 years after that first marital estrangement, Dylan nearly died from histoplasmosis pericarditis, a fungal infection that in rare cases affects — of course — the heart. Again, after frantic touring, he is hospitalized and forced to stay home. This album, his 30th, is a different kind of reckoning: this time it is with death.
The two are conflated and the album begins with “Love Sick.” I see lovers in the meadow/ I see, I see silhouettes in the window/ I watch them ‘til they’re gone/ And they leave me hangin’ on/To a shadow/ I’m sick of love Sick of love, sick from love, sick in the heart. The speaker watches new love in real time and at the same time sees the past is gone. We get the conflation of time again and the uniting of subject and object. Everything is haunted.
Songs like “Standing the Doorway” (“Everything was going too fast, today it’s moving too slow… I got no place left to turn, I got nothing left to burn.”) “Not Dark Yet” (“But it’s getting there…”): “Make You Feel My Love.” (“The storms are raging on the rolling sea/And on the highway of regret/The winds of change are blowing wild and free/ You ain’t seen nothing like me yet.”).
Slow down an anthem and it becomes a love song. That’s a different kind of collective power, in any genre. These are the most emotionally truthful albums Dylan has written. That “Time Out of Mind” lands last on “Highlands,” a blues riff clocking in at over 16 minutes, serves as dodge and cover. The tone shifts and the narrative distance between speaker and listener is vast, but the devastation is the same:
My heart’s in the Highlands, can’t see any other way to go/Every day is the same thing, out the door/Feel further away than ever before/Some things in life it just gets too late to learn/Well I’m lost somewhere, I must have made a few bad turns.
There’s no chorus or a bridge. You cannot sing along until you listen. A lot.
What strikes me 23 years after the album’s release, is that when he nearly died, Dylan was only 56, which then seemed ancient, as far into the future as I might see. “Time out of Mind” is one of the first Dylan albums I listened to when it was released. I gave it to myself. It’s only as I write this that I realize that only two years previously I had an illness I nearly died from. I had my own reckonings, far too soon.
As with all art, perhaps it is less about an objective “best” (has there been a woman to consistently review Dylan or will men be explaining Dylan to me into eternity?) and more about where we are in relation to the material.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” comes again out of a period of respite for Dylan, and indeed, for the world. We are isolated and aching and we are listening. That does not make it the best album since “Blood on the Tracks” but it makes it the most imperative one since “The Times They Are a Changing.” The single, “Murder Most Foul,” was released on March 27th, 2020, at the relative beginning of our collective isolation. It felt so wonderful to have him, briefly, back again. President Kennedy assassination? OK, a story about the past to examine the present. Nearly 17 minutes long? Dodge and Cover. References? Let me get out my decoder. I can see clearly. All the links. To history and aging and the near far past. It’s all gone. It’s a clear and painful line. I see the allusions and the sadness and the management of legacy. I am reading again. I have so much to say. It’s spoken word and I’m listening. It’s less vulnerable and raw than tired and wise but I know that all of our flawed heroes, our cruel mentors, they’ll be gone soon. Say goodbye. Let them say goodbye.
Jennifer Gilmore is the author of three novels for adults and two for teens. Her novel “The Mothers” is currently being adapted to film. She’s an associate professor at Lafayette College.
A Dylan Album When We Needed It Most, by Eric Alterman
The Forward, a Jewish publication, asks me a question: “Is ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ Bob Dylan’s best album since “Blood on the Tracks?” As a Jew, I can imagine only one possible answer: “yes and no.”
Musically, it’s not even close. “Desire” has more beautiful melodies, tighter lyrics and far better hooks. I also think, years from now, I will find myself singing along to the songs on “Street Legal,” “Infidels” and even the profoundly underrated “Empire Burlesque” when they pop up via “shuffle” more often than those on “Rough and Ready.” I know a lot of people think “Oh Mercy” belongs in this category and a few argue for “Tempest” and “Love and Theft.” But, in Dylan’s case, arguing about albums misses the point.
“What is Dylan saying now?” is a question people have been asking themselves since “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” in 1963 (I doubt anyone asked it about 1962’s “Bob Dylan,” an album of mostly unremarkable covers recorded on a single day in while John Hammond read a newspaper in the producer’s booth.) Since then, Dylan has become a kind of echo in the minds of the people who came of age listening to him.
What’s my point? The Dylan oeuvre is not a collection of albums; it’s an ongoing expression of our collective unconscious. I’ve read a lot of Dylan criticism over the years. The most interesting and challenging work I encountered was Sir Christopher Ricks’ “Dylan’s Vision of Sin.” Read this famous former Oxford Professor of Poetry’s close reading of just a few of Dylan’s lyrics and the only conclusion one can draw is that it’s impossible to imagine the author of these lyrics is consciously aware of all the historical connections and literary allusions present in his work. Leonard Cohen writes more elegant poetry. And a Bruce Springsteen concert is a hell of lot more fun. But Dylan is our prophet; God’s vessel, if you will. He told us back in 1963 that the “times were-a changing,” the answer was “blowing in the wind,” and “a hard rain [was] gonna fall.” And damned if he hasn’t been telling us how that has turned out better than anyone else alive ever since.
I’m pretty sure he knows all this, which is why he rarely if ever answers a straight question about himself truthfully. As he told Doug Brinkley recently for his New York Times interview, speaking of the first song on “Rough and Rowdy,” “I Contain Multitudes” “…the last few verses came first…that’s where the song was going all along…you write it on instinct…in a trance state.” His songs “come from out of thin air.” That song, while obviously inspired by Whitman and referencing Poe’s tell-tale heart” as well as maybe Springsteen’s 1984 B-side “Pink Cadillac,” contains the already legendary rhyme:
“I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones/And them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones”.
And according to a some deep Dylanology diving in the British press, there’s also reference to the work of a blind 18th-century poet named Antoine Ó Raifteirí who I, and I’m betting you, dear reader, never heard of. And that’s one of the simpler songs on the album. It was fun trying to identify all the references in “Murder Most Foul,” when it appeared as if out of the ether, but the most moving part of it was that it somehow sent me directly back to the superior, but no less mystifying “Desolation Row.” Don’t get me wrong. I love listening to this album. I just don’t ever expect to understand it all. I appreciate that the genius returned, after eight fallow years, in part to confuse us even further, but also to remind us that we are not entirely alone.
This is a great Dylan album at least in part, because it comes at a moment of such great need. We live in age of atomization masked by the illusion of virtual community, It’s a time, aptly described in in Judges 17: 6, when “there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And thankfully, we’ve still got this genuine prophet in our midst; soothing, angry, challenging, righteous, raspy and even sometimes, I must admit, kind of crazy.
After all, here’s a nearly 80-year old guy singing about his creation of a Frankenstein love monster in a single song that contain references, among others: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard III, Homer’s Iliad, Bo Diddley, Martin Scorsese, Al Pacino, the White Horse Tavern, Liberace, Leon Russell, Trojan women, the first Crusade, St. John and St. Peter, and those “enemies of mankind” Marx and Freud. “If I do it right and put the head on straight, I’ll be saved by the creature that I create,” he concludes.
Us too, God willing…
Eric Alterman is CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College and The Nation’s media columnist.
Dylan’s First Album As An Old Man, by Jay Michaelson.
Bob Dylan’s Grammy-award-winning comeback album, 1997’s “Time Out of Mind,” is a glorious record of death and rebirth. Death insofar as the album’s songs frequently have themes of mortality and aging (“I been all around the world, boys / Now I’m trying to get to heaven before they close the door”)(“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”) and, with Daniel Lanois’s layered production, Dylan himself sounds almost ghostly. This is not the brash hipster on Highway 61 or the reflective singer-songwriter down by the waterfront docks. This was Dylan’s first album as an old man.
(Coincidentally, shortly after recording the album, Dylan did fall gravely ill with an infection called histoplasmosis. This led many critics to ascribe the record’s morbid ruminations to Dylan’s brush with death. Nope – just a coincidence, or maybe prophecy.)
But rebirth in that “Time Out of Mind” was the first album of the longest phase of Dylan’s career, the one still going on today: Dylan as old bluesman, grizzled and world-weary, with both knowledge of the classics and the chutzpah to rip them off.
This is the Dylan who, over the next few years, would give concerts in cowboy suits and a brimmed hat; who would host a “Theme Time Radio Hour” featuring the old-time music which Dylan pilfered for this new phase of his work; who would title an album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” and sing about midnight ramblers, high waters rising, and Black Riders tempting fate.
With “Time Out of Mind” – which followed two albums of traditional songs, 1992’s “Good as I Been to You” and 1993’s “World Gone Wrong” – Dylan shed the pretensions of continued pop relevance that ruined much of his output in the 1980s. He stopped trying to be up to date. He refocused his attention on timeless themes and old musical forms. He became a kind of embittered elder prophet with a dim view of the world.
“Time Out of Mind,” and most of the excellent music that Dylan has produced in the two decades since, was the result. Track for track, this is not only the best Dylan album since “Blood on the Tracks”; it is, like the 1975 masterpiece, a perfect sequence of songs. There’s not a dud on there.
The opener, “Love Sick,” is unlike anything Dylan had released previously: slow, haunting, and world-weary. Once Dylan had asked “How many roads must a man walk down /Before you call him a man?” The first words on “Time Out of Mind” are “I’m walking through streets that are dead.”
The rest of what used to be called the “first side” of the album are classic blues rockers. What’s perhaps most notable about them is Dylan himself, or at least, the character Dylan portrays in these songs: heartbroken, alone, unable to get close to his lover, maybe soon to pass from this Earth.
Dylan’s lyrics echo a century of American songwriting (sometimes they plagiarize them), their shared language a kind of code. Dylan’s talking about existential conditions here – life, death, disillusionment – with tropes of lost women, gamblers, and freight trains. As he did on the two traditional music albums, Dylan finds poetry in the timeless.
The second “side” of the album is even better. “Not Dark Yet” has become recognized as one of latter-day-Dylan’s finest songs; the version I heard him perform at the Beacon Theatre last year was absolutely heartbreaking. The song takes no prisoners, with lines like “Feel like my soul has turned into steel/ I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal” and “I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies/ I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes.” It’s not dark yet, says the hook, but it’s getting there.
“Cold Irons Bound” has also become a late-Dylan classic, a staple in live performances, and a key to his reinvention. With more grim-faced lyrics and a kind of rollicking bar-band sound, the persona and feel of the song prefigure Dylan’s underrated “Together Through Life” (2009), “Tempest” (2012), and now “Rough and Rowdy Ways.”
In all of these, the narrator isn’t Robert Zimmerman of Malibu, California, but some kind of timeless, archetypal blues man, headed for another joint. “I ain’t no false prophet – I just know what I know/I go where only the lonely can go,” Dylan sings on this year’s “False Prophet.” That sound, the vibe, and the narrative voice can all be traced back to “Cold Irons Bound” – and “Can’t Wait,” which appears two songs later.
The most unlikely part of “Time Out Of Mind,” though, is the ballad “Make You Feel My Love,” which has been covered by Adele, Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, and over 450 other artists, become a kind of modern standard, and generated millions of dollars in royalties. I admit, it’s not my favorite song on the album, but I love the fact that the one track I don’t think is a masterpiece – is now clearly, by consensus, exactly that.
As for myself, I’ll stick with the album’s 16-minute closer, “Highlands” – Dylan’s longest song until this year’s “Murder Most Foul.” “Highlands,” with its refrain from poet Robert Burns (“My heart’s in the highlands”) is a meandering stroll through alienation and aging. Half-hallucinatory, half-free-association – also like “Murder Most Foul” – it finds the Dylan narrator unmoored from the world, his heart already in the afterlife.
Indeed, just as “Murder Most Foul” seems somehow to both chronicle and anticipate the collapse of our civilization, from the JFK assassination to the present day’s apocalypse, “Highlands” is an inner chronicle of that same disintegration: a personal alienation, in which everything is broken and it’s getting dark, too dark to see. Though written in 1997, when I hear it today, it sounds like the soundtrack of our own time out of mind.
Rabbi Dr. Jay Michaelson is the author of eight books, including, most recently, “Enlightenment by Trial and Error.”
Full author list: Anthony DeCurtis & Greil Marcus & Tatiana Garcia-Altagracia & Dan Epstein & Adam Langer & Bill Wyman & Seth Rogovoy & Jennifer Gilmore & Eric Alterman & Jay Michaelson