The final poem in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience opens by addressing a “youth of delight” to whom the speaker shows the morning. Newly dawned, it’s a symbol of hope, truth and reason which the speaker contrasts with the “endless maze” of folly, full of “tangled roots.” But then the poem turns, closing with a shadowy warning: “How many have fallen there!/ They stumble all night over bones of the dead/ And feel they know not what but care;/ And wish to lead others when they should be led.” The poem unites the two halves of the bifurcated collection. Here, the voice of experience passes on knowledge to the innocent. The whole work is contained in this final poem.

Written in 1789, the first year of the French Revolution, the work presages a shift in Blake’s poetics toward the prophetic and apocalyptic (in the older sense of the word, revelation) style of his mature period. The poem is called “The Voice of the Ancient Bard.” Far from 1789 – but perhaps not so far – we are presented with the return of our own ancient bard, Bob Dylan, who has released his first album of original material in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways.

I sing songs of experience, like William Blake, Dylan croons on opening track “I Contain Multitudes” over a bed of shifting, reverberating guitars that peak out between his vocal phrasings. The reference is not out of place. Dylan is a Nobel laureate, after all, and anyway among the most literate of popular songwriters. Such references are scattered throughout the album and indeed his entire discography. But this particular reference serves especially as a signal to the listener of what kind of music they are going to hear. “I sleep with life and death in the same bed,” he sings. This duality, this reckoning with both his impossible life and inevitable death, permeates the record.

The 79-year-old Dylan is preoccupied not with death in the abstract, but in the specific – that is, his own – while still wrapping it in poetry. On that first track, Dylan observes that “the flowers are dying like all things do.” Death not only haunts Dylan’s every step, but sleeps with his wife on “Black Rider.” The band creeps along chord by chord like Dylan’s assailant. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” – a rowdy 12-bar number – has the singer traveling to the underworld to pay homage to the titular bluesman (who died in 1976); on “Mother of Muses,” Dylan asks for baptism, and sighs “I’ve already outlived my life by far.” On “Crossing the Rubicon” “the leaves are gone” and the river of the title, but for the rhythm that matches the percussion’s shuffle, could be interchanged with that other iconic waterway – the Styx – and keep the meaning more or less intact. The song, too, is an acknowledgement that, over and over, Dylan has been asked to go back; back to the folk songs; back to that mercury sound; back to wild rodeo of the Rolling Thunder Revue; but there’s no use in looking back, because you can’t return. “False Prophet” has Dylan bragging that he is “The last of the best/ You can bury the rest.” It is hard to imagine a more melancholy show of hubris – being the last one standing just means you’re alone.

Enough about death, though, the record – like Blake’s poem – contains more than just darkness. Rough and Rowdy Ways boasts some of the funniest of Dylan’s lyrics in a career full of them. “Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine,” pleads Dylan, cuckolded by death on “Black Rider.” He isn’t afraid to trade barbs with the reaper, either, sneering “the size of your cock will get you nowhere.” It’s an instantly infamous line. And while the aforementioned “I Contain Multitudes” delves directly into the somber and sublime, Dylan – like Whitman from whom he steals the title line – understands that the whole of a person contains the banal, too. He muses, “I drive fast cars/ And I eat fast foods/ I contain multitudes” – sir, this is a Wendy’s. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” has an insulting couplet that’s both sensuous and silly: “I’ll break open your grapes, I’ll suck out the juice/ I need you like my head needs a noose.” Like so many songs in Dylan’s career, the lightness here, the wickedness of his humor throughout the record, is as much in the content as in the delivery. The way he elongates the word “nudes” or lands hard on the percussive “cock” and “robot commando” dispel any notions that he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing.

That latter phrase comes from “My Own Version of You,” a gothic, vaudevillian vamp in which Dylan fashions a golem from body parts, cactus and gunpowder – imbuing it with the personality traits of Pacino’s Scarface and Brando’s Godfather – in an attempt to stay mortality. Dylan has always freely thrown around “I” and “you” without worrying too much about who they refer to and that murkiness charges the track with a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic that gets played out in the instrumentation, where a mandolin trembles while a pedal steel floats like fog and the stand-up bass thumps out a cold-blooded heartbeat.

There is tenderness on Rough and Rowdy Ways between the gallows humor. Dylan shows he’s picked up a few tricks from those Sinatra tributes he’s been doing on “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” One of the only tracks with backing vocals, Dylan nimbly muses over the smooth accompaniment. It’s perhaps the most straightforward and beautiful love song he has ever written and it feels like a response, so many decades later, to Dylan’s meanest track, “Idiot Wind.” Back then, he sang “Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull/ From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.” Here, he himself takes that same west-east journey that the wind blew through, but with very different results: “I’m giving myself to you, I am/ From Salt Lake City to Birmingham.” The song is a belated apology; “just takes me a while to realize things,” he bashfully admits.

The final two tracks on the record are also the longest. The first track, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” casts the islands of the title as the mythical paradise into which Dylan emerges after his long sojourn through death’s lands over the course of Rough and Rowdy Ways. It is the “enchanted land.” “Key West is the place to be/ If you’re looking for immortality” Dylan sings, “Key West is on the horizon line.” It is a state of mind – “winter here is an unknown thing” – it is a goal always to be strived for, never to be reached. Maybe only Bob Dylan could throw on a Hawaiian shirt and find his way there. Returning to Blake, again, Dylan figures Key West as “the gateway key/ To innocence and purity.”

Dipping into the same waters as a lesser-known favorite of Dylanologists, “Caribbean Wind,” from the early 80s, “Key West” is slower and more stately than that track. An accordion blows through the track like the gentle, but persistent breeze off the Gulf, unknown voices join in to ooh and ahh sweetly under Dylan’s gravelly dispatch from the far-away land populated with beautiful, but poisonous flora and fauna – “such is life, such is happiness.” The trick of striking this balance – between life and death, beauty and pain – is one Dylan claims to have mastered: “I play both sides against the middle,” he reveals with a smile. And all the while, the sun is setting, it’s getting dark, and he’s “trying to pick up that pirate radio signal.”

On the last song on the album, “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan finds the radio signal. Coming in at an even-by-Dylan-standards epic 17 minutes and dropped without warning at midnight just as the reality of the global pandemic was beginning to set in around the U.S., it’s surreal quality matches the surreal world into which it was delivered. Even more unreal, it became Dylan’s only number one single on the Billboard charts. What can one even say about this track? Yes, it is a rumination on the JFK assassination – with intimations of conspiracy; yes, it is a record of American culture since Dylan was born – referencing Etta James, Buster Keaton and The Eagles; yes, it casts radio DJ Wolf Man Jack as the spiritual MC of this funeral procession. Dylan has described his writing process in recent years as trance-like, no track better fits that description than “Murder Most Foul.” It is already immortal; it will certainly outlast the country it eulogizes.

Dylan isn’t often thought of as an experimental artist like Lou Reed or Scott Walker, but this is only because his experiments are not in avant-garde, but rather pop forms. “Murder Most Foul” blurs the line between these two, stretching the form of the song to impossible limits while positing that the modern history of the United States is like nothing so much as a dead carcass being dragged slowly through the Dallas streets in the back of a Lincoln Continental while some pop tunes play.

All the musicians – Benmont Tench on organ and Blake Mills on harmonium, according to Alan Pasqua who plays piano on the song – are totally free and yet completely in synch, creating a palate for Dylan’s poetry unlike anything in his catalog. There is a metallic echo that floats sometimes deep in the track that is more chilling than Psycho’s iconic screeches. In the last lines of the song, Dylan sings “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’/ Play ‘Murder Most Foul.’” “The Blood-Stained Banner” is an obscure hymn on the liberatory power of Christ’s death on the cross, but it’s also the name of the final Confederate flag. And “Murder Most Foul,” is, of course, the song we’ve been listening to for 17 minutes. Like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the track ends by starting over.

In Greil Marcus’s book The Old, Weird America, Robbie Robertson looks back on The Basement Tapes sessions and says that Dylan “would pull these songs out of nowhere. We didn’t know if he wrote them or if he remembered them. When he sang them, you couldn’t tell.” The best of Dylan’s records have always had this quality about them, that they share roots with the whole wide, wild corpus of American music, that they’re just fruit he picked from a little farther out on the branch. By that measure, Rough and Rowdy Ways stands unimpeachably among the very best albums of Dylan’s six decade career.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Discography: Kate Bush: Before the Dawn

You can’t see her smile, but on Before the Dawn — the documentation of her first live show…