If you have followed us this far, marching through the decades of Dylan’s incomparable career, you may have noticed a pattern emerging. For every decade after Dylan’s universally recognized classic phase we have made the case – to a greater or lesser degree – that there was more to the story of, say, the ’80s than what the average listener might have heard. Sometimes we had to pan for gold – the ’90s – and other times the obvious superiority of the music spoke for itself. Such was the case with our previous entry on the 2000s, which our own Peter Tabakis dubbed Dylan’s third imperial phase.

This final entry in our series is a bit unusual, though. We have stretched the “decade” qualification to include everything Dylan has released since 2010. Like the 90s, Dylan spent most of the last ten-ish years recording songs he did not write, so the music surveyed here lacks the “neat” cogency of a decade like the 6’0s. With 2012’s Tempest, Dylan put an exclamation mark on the period he inaugurated in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, and with last year’s Rough and Rowdy Ways he has – may-he-live-so-long – inaugurated a new phase of productivity. In between he did something that is not at all unusual for an aging rock star, but which – given Dylan’s resistance to most aging rock-star tropes – seems bizarre: he entered his American Songbook Era.

The trio of albums on which Dylan conjured the spirit of Sinatra – Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels and the trilogy-within-the-trilogy Triplicate – are represented by only one song on our list. Even a Dylan fan as dovish as I am on these records wouldn’t place them in the top echelon of his albums, but their near-absence below is not relative to their quality, only indicative of the towering stature of the albums that bookend this detour. And whatever their individual worth, Dylan the artist needed to live with these songs to give us his latest masterwork. Take this how you will, but Triplicate is the only Bob Dylan album my grandmother and I both love.

That is, in the end, what makes these songs – from 1962’s Bob Dylan onwards – endure. Few artists have ever loomed larger than Dylan, or cast such a wide net over the culture. Having so many points – both the failures and successes – of possible connection means that no matter where you are and no matter who you find yourself with, you can probably talk Dylan. For the last eight (!) months, it’s been a pleasure to bond and fight over song after song with my fellow Dylan obsessives here at the site. I’ll remember the past year for plenty of bad reasons, but I’ll also remember it as Our Year of Bob Dylan. – Ian Maxton

“Duquesne Whistle”

If many of Dylan’s most memorable tracks rely on interpretive ambiguity, “Duquesne Whistle” skirts the question. It doesn’t dodge it – fans continue to debate whether the song refers to a train or a tornado (or both) – but it has a different set of concerns. With this opening cut from Tempest, Dylan suggests a different era, bringing back old-time railroads. He doesn’t sound much like Jimmie Rodgers here, but that’s the sort of image he wants to sketch. By 2012, Dylan was five proper albums into yet another renaissance, and his band by now sounded less like a throwback to a mythic past and more like the current sound of Dylan’s Americana. The mix of sound, train imagery, and allusion gives the track an edge of hyperreality; we aren’t really thinking about Dust Bowl transportation or old-time factory whistles, but we settle into our parallel ideas about history.

In his easy shuffle, Dylan plays less with allusion that is typical for this era and more with cultural signifiers, a casual semiotic game. We have the necessary staples for blues, folk or country – vague religion, a hint of romance, nostalgia, lingering melancholy. It’s unclear but irrelevant whether Dylan faces love or apocalypse. It doesn’t matter why a “time bomb in my heart” would be a good thing. The song piles up evocations not to invite understanding but to situate the listener. The opening few bars provide misdirection with both sound and tempo, yet they open Dylan’s world and provide just one more indication of where he’s going. Wherever this train track leads, it must be worth going. – Justin Cober-Lake

“Soon After Midnight”

I’m searching for phrases/ To sing your praises” Dylan croons in the opening lines of “Soon After Midnight,” as the band hangs way back in the mix. It seems an entry in the canon of Dylan’s tender live songs – the noble poet, scribbling late into the night in an effort to capture his beloved’s essence. The band comes up in the mix – a full doo-wop swing – to reinforce the moonstruck narrator.

The third verse takes the same lyrical structure but messes with the melody and chord progression. It serves as a bridge even if there’s no chorus on the other side of it. The singer is trying to break through the lover’s resistance. Maybe he’s a working man – “I’ve been down on the killing floors,” Dylan intones – and so the toil of love is one for which he has both the patience and the fortitude to endure. But there is also a creeping undertone of aggression present, sweetness tempered with acidity. Sure enough, by verse four, the mask slips, he’s using nasty names for women – but he overcorrects, the verse ends with fairy tale intonation.

The brief instrumental interlude that follows has shades of Johnny and Santo’s “Sleepwalk,” as if to add extra sweetness to the sugary landscape of love the narrator is trying to reestablish. But when the words return, the main action of the song has already happened: “They’re lying there dying in their blood.” It might take a moment to remember “they” can only refer to the women named in the song. Then some fellow gets his corpse dragged through the mud.

It’s a love song that becomes a murder ballad – which, of course, means it’s not a love song at all. The song elides the border between tale and metaphor like one of those optical illusions where the picture changes depending on what details you fix your eyes on: it’s both. “It’s soon after midnight/ And I don’t want nobody but you” is maybe the most terrifying line Dylan ever wrote – and all the more so for its tenderness. – Ian Maxton</strong

“Narrow Way”

Bob Dylan is rarely an explicitly political writer. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about politics or current events – the man wrote a song called “Political World,” after all – but his concerns about the world are more on the macro level, focusing on common experiences and long-standing aspects of human nature and society as opposed to specific events in history. There’s an argument to be had that “Narrow Way” is a political song, though most Dylan scholars tend to favor the religious angle that Dylan employs with some of his imagery. I would argue though, that “Narrow Way” is political in the historical sense; its allusions to American history and Christianity serve to portray an idea of the American experience that is all too familiar now. In “Narrow Way,” Dylan is portraying the warts-and-all lifespan of America and framing it as a struggle between enshrining lofty ideals and consistently failing to live up to them.

There’s a feeling of constant movement through “Narrow Way” both in Dylan’s winding story and the insistent, driving rhythms of the song. The path of existence, of history, continues moving forward with or without you, and Dylan knows this. His speaker begins with noble intentions, but each forward movement brings more debauchery, more selfishness and ultimately more destruction. The results are existentially dire for the soul; all of the speaker’s ill deeds end up getting him less than he expected, all while severing ties with the rest of humanity. Dylan invokes the spectres of imperialism (“We looted and we plundered on distant shores/ Why is my share not equal to yours”) and religious fervor (“Be gentle, brother/ Be gentle and pray”) while showing the nature of this quest as futile. Even those lofty American ideas are held up, Dylan’s perspective is a cynical one to close out the song: “If I can’t work up to you/ You’ll have to work down to me someday.– Kevin Korber

“Long and Wasted Years”

Bob Dylan loves a descending guitar figure. “Long and Wasted Years” takes this love to an extreme in that the song’s entire musical structure is just a descending figure hung together with a few chordal bars used to bring the band back to the top of the deep groove that keeps the song chugging.

Lyrically, Dylan is all regret and introspection. The song is addressed to a former lover, but uses that point of personal connection to paint a broader picture of the life conjured by the title. “I ain’t seen my family in twenty years/ That ain’t easy to understand, they may be dead by now/ I lost track of ‘em after they lost their land,” Dylan sings, recalling his earliest years when he would spin different origin stories for himself to feed to eager journalists. Scores are settled, enemies crushed and – rare for Dylan – a sincere apology is offered.

As another song once put it: how did I get here? For the Dylan of “Long and Wasted Years,” the answer is train tracks. And like those tracks, the distance and direction were always fixed, “forty miles wide/ Down the eastern line.” The singer and the addressee were determined to end up this way, even if some of the times they had were good. The landscape that unravels behind the train is a foreign country. Melancholy, but bemused, Dylan sings, “I think that when my back was turned/ The whole world behind me burned.”

The song might be seen as an early sketch for “Murder Most Foul” – the invocation of “Twist and Shout” stands out in the song’s unravelling of the past. Dylan has lived long enough to see his own past become History, a fixed narrative that bears only a passing resemblance to a single life, let alone the complex rhizome of social life. And if that’s all that a life amounts to in the end, well, “So much for tears/ So much for these long and wasted years.” – Ian Maxton

“Pay in Blood”

It takes a lot to laugh and a train to cry, but it’ll take nothing short of divine intervention to save your ass if the singer of “Pay in Blood” has you in his sights. In the years before he embraced the tenderness of the Great American Songbook, Dylan occasionally hinted at the kind of violence normally seen in the Old Testament, or Nick Cave’s songwriting. There were moments on 1997’s Time Out of Mind, the record on which he clawed himself back from the brink of irrelevance (and, it appeared, death itself), where Dylan sounded like he was barely capable of holding himself back from some unspeakable act: “If I ever saw you coming I don’t know what I might do,” he growled on “Can’t Wait,” the second time he made such an admission on the album. He was even more revenant-like on Modern Times’s “Ain’t Talkin’,” threatening to slaughter his enemies in their beds.

“Pay in Blood,” then, is what lies at the end of Dylan’s long and lonesome road. It’s not the deadliest track on Tempest – the title track, after all, is about the sinking of the Titanic – but it’s pretty handily the most malevolent. He’s got an unbreakable chain with which to hold you and a big pile of rocks with which to stone you (no, not like that) to death. If that doesn’t kill you, he’s got something in his pocket to “make your eyeballs swim,” whatever the hell that means. And if that doesn’t kill you, he’s got dogs that’ll tear you limb from limb.

But “Pay in Blood” doesn’t just stand out for what it threatens to do – it’s also who it threatens to do it to. It isn’t an unfaithful lover or a nameless opponent. It’s “politician[s] pumping out the piss,” lining their pockets while the proletariat grinds through the day and into the night just to make a living. And while Dylan was always political, this is a song that he could’ve written only in his twilight years; it’s hard to imagine the young Dylan of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” ever sounding this…vicious. But he’d been speaking truth to power for nearly half a century in 2012 – his cynicism was understandable. In 2021, knowing how many of those bastards are still in power, it feels like the only appropriate response. – Jacob Nierenberg

“Scarlet Town”

One of the more curious omissions from Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong – the two albums of traditional folk songs that Dylan recorded in the ‘90s – is “Barbara Allen.” Dylan may have felt the song was too obvious, seeing as it’s perhaps the most popular song in the English language. But Dylan’s admiration of the song goes back several decades, having performed it frequently in the early years of his career (here it is on Dylan’s Live at the Gaslight 1962), and he once wrote, “without ‘Barbara Allen’ there’d be no ‘Girl from the North Country.’”

There might still have been a “Scarlet Town,” however, albeit with a different name. Dylan claims the folk song’s opening line – “In Scarlet Town, where I was born” – as his own, but beyond that he weaves a more complex tale of love and woe. Simply put, Scarlet Town is a necropolis, buried “under the hill,” as Dylan informs us within the song’s first minute. It’s a creepy and surreal place – you can still see the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – yet it’s not so different from our current world, where angels’ clothes are torn and the dead keep dying. Dylan sings of economic ruin (“Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce”) and generational cycles of violence (“In Scarlet Town, you fight your father’s foes”); he even haunts a bar, drinking away his regrets over a “flat-chested junkie whore” and barking at the performer to play Ernest Tubb’s twangy lament “Walking the Floor Over You.” It all makes his repeated declaration that he was born in this damned place that much more haunting. – Jacob Nierenberg

“Early Roman Kings”

“Early Roman Kings” brims with the bile of one mean septuagenarian. The song’s title almost certainly references a South Bronx gang – the Roman Kings – once active in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And so this swaggering Tempest cut, which was played live at nearly every Never Ending Tour stop since its 2012 release, invokes the classic image of a wiseguy over and over again. Dylan sings of “sharkskin suits” and “high top boots,” of “peddlers” and “meddlers,” of “sluggers” and “muggers” with their “fancy gold rings.” “I’ll strip you of life, strip you of breath”, he sneers to an unnamed patsy, “ship you down to the house of death.” These are the words of a mobster, one who’s eager to put some poor bastard “on trial in a Sicilian court.”

Despite all this lyrical menace, “Early Roman Kings” – with its bluesy strut and wheezing harmonica-like accordion flourishes – is mostly performative bluster on Dylan’s part. He’s giving us Mick Jagger flamboyance wrapped up in the guise of Michael Corleone danger. There’s an impish, if not boyish, quality to his taunts. “I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag,” he boasts with a bit of schoolyard vulgarity and the mildest possible phrase to describe fucking.

Dylan, no doubt, is in on the joke. When he insists, “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings,” it’s with a smirk. A statement like that is inherently self-defeating. If you have to say it, it probably ain’t so. The proof of Dylan’s vitality here is not in his words, but in the sheer verve of this music. “I’ve had my fun,” he sings at the end of “Early Roman Kings,” a claim no one can dispute. – Peter Tabakis

“Tin Angel”

“Tin Angel” is more a story than a song, spanning some nine minutes without a single chord change, the instrumentalists playing the same repetitious figures on a seemingly endless loop. The resulting effect is somewhat hypnotic and, because of this, requires a handful of listens for the full story to finally begin to sink in (if it ever truly manages to do so). Indeed, it’s often easier to let your mind wander as you’re listening, riding the crest of the simple drums, slippery double bass, and assorted plinking and plunking underscoring the linear narrative involving three travelers, each of dubious nature. Listening though, one finds themself hoping Dylan’s backing band didn’t have to do more than one take. While the circuitous minimalism of the arrangement manages to instill a sense of creeping dread that, once taken in tandem with the lyrics, helps to further underscore the inevitable, deadly outcome, it nonetheless can be something of a chore to endure for an extended period of time.

Repetitiousness aside, “Tin Angel” is a murder ballad in the classical sense; however, it’s one in which there are no survivors. With Dylan’s raspy, phlegmatic, nasal recitation riding high in the mix, the words themselves tend to get lost without the closest of listen, their very sound becoming the only melodic movement that evolves over the course of the track’s nine minutes. But as with much of Dylan’s 21st century output, “Tin Angel” finds him retracing and retreading his roots, borrowing imagery and inserting lyrical allusions to more than a few folk songs. Most blatant is “Black Jack Davy” (recorded by Dylan as “Blackjack Davey” on Good as I Been to You), but there are countless others with similar thematic elements and plot. In essence, “Tin Angel” is Dylan as bard or traveling minstrel, offering up an entertaining story full of rich, vivid imagery and duplicitous individuals, each of whom comes to their karmic end. – John Paul

“Tempest”

At first blush, “Tempest” answers a question about Bob Dylan’s personal life that no one ever asked: yes, Bob Dylan has seen James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic. It’s definitely an inspiration for the song, both in how Dylan wrote something that proportionally equals the film’s length (this is Dylan’s third-longest song) and in the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio in Dylan’s recounting of the historical tragedy. However, Cameron’s film is only one part of the tale of “Tempest,” easily one of Dylan’s most baffling and surprising songwriting turns. Dylan himself claimed that a Carter Family recording of an old song recounting the sinking of the great ship was equally as pivotal, and indeed, the song has a similar feel to other old folk tunes that recounted the great events of years past to an audience who either forgot or never lived through them. However, this is Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan was never going to write something so straightforward as that.

“Tempest” seems less interested in the rigid set of events of April 14, 1912, and more interested in the human side of the tragedy. Dylan splits the story into the perspectives of different passengers on the ship. He hones in on the fear and chaos on the ship, the guilt and hopelessness of the people in charge of the ship and the small acts of kindness and heroism that ultimately didn’t amount to much. Even those come with a caveat; the one unambiguous hero of the song is DiCaprio, not a passenger on the ship but an actor portraying a fictional character in a dramatization of the sinking. The story of the Titanic is often portrayed as one of the folly of man, but Dylan takes it further on “Tempest.” Here, the story is not just about humanity’s hubris, but also about the powerlessness that that hubris ultimately acts as a flimsy shield against. – Kevin Korber

“Roll on John”

In the mid-‘60s, rock music evolved swiftly, as musicians moved on from the confines of verse-chorus-verse structure to include elements of jazz, folk, raga and more. Bob Dylan and the Beatles were among the progenitors of this new wave of music, turning records into complete artistic statements rather than a loose collection of a few hit singles surrounded by lesser filler.

Thirty-two years after the tragic death of John Lennon, Dylan (sort of) eulogizes him in “Roll on John,” the final track of Tempest. Using the structure of a traditional folk song he played in 1962, Dylan may pay lip service to a deceased friend/competitor, but the song veers wildly into an exploration of slavery, Jesus and William Blake.

It is true that the Beatles listened to a lot of Dylan in the first part of the ‘60s and legend has it that he introduced them to marijuana. Lennon even emulated his style with songs such as “Norwegian Wood” to the point where Dylan responded with the cutting “4th Time Around,” sending the Beatle reeling into a paranoid state that had him checking future Dylan cuts for insults.

In “Roll on John,” Dylan looks at Lennon as a myth more than a man. The musician once compared himself to Jesus Christ and Dylan takes it a step further by lionizing him in song, pushing him towards a mythic status of sorts. Though some of the lyrics directly reference Lennon’s life, much of the song is ripe for interpretation. The men weren’t close friends by any means, but there are very few people who loom close to Dylan in terms of their impact on popular music. Though the song may ramble over seven minutes, there is something entrancing about Dylan’s meanderings, especially when the words, “I read the news today, oh boy,” cuts through the cryptic text like a bright beacon – David Harris

“Autumn Leaves”

There is something undeniably pleasant about the infectious melancholy of autumn, but there is unavoidably a sense of unease bound up in it as well. This sense of unease is of course part of what makes it beautiful. As John Keats said in his poem addressed to the season: “Thou hast thy music too… / …in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn…

In the hands of many singers, “Autumn Leaves” sounds a bit more placid, serene in spite of the agitation of the music itself. And while it’s true that many of Dylan’s interpretations of classic songs don’t radically change the formula, on “Autumn Leaves,” his delivery instantly distinguishes him from his predecessors. Alongside restrained guitars, his reedy voice and his phrasing, so well attuned to the content of the lyrics, are able to bring out something of the simmering unease of the season and the song’s instrumental accompaniment, imbuing every word with the weight of an omen. When he sings, “Since you went away,” his voice is practically a whisper.

Given how much Dylan is known for his own lyrics, the decision to record versions of other people’s songs understandably baffled many of us. But it takes a keen reader of both words and musical compositions to be a great interpreter, as artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra have shown. “Autumn Leaves” is a testament to Dylan’s lyricism even though it wasn’t written by him. In his interpretations, Dylan’s sensitivity to his sources is manifest. This care with which Dylan approaches the songs and the histories that inspire him is a defining feature of his artistry in the 21st century. – Tyler Dunston

“I Contain Multitudes”

The title itself would be a fitting epithet for Dylan himself, a chameleonic figure who has adopted seemingly innumerable personae and contradictions through his more than 60 years in the public eye. As with so much of Dylan’s work, “I Contain Multitudes” itself contains a seemingly endless stream of references both musical and literary, the title itself coming from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” while both Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones get name-checked alongside Anne Frank and William Blake. But unlike some of his more esoteric or abstract writings, “I Contain Multitudes” is surprisingly straightforward. When speaking with The New York Times in 2020, Dylan remarked upon this song specifically that its “lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors.” This makes lines like, “Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe/ Got skeletons in the walls of people you know” about as autobiographically forthcoming as we can expect him to be with regard to his personal history; “I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes/ I contain multitudes.”

And while the bulk of the song feels like a stream-of-consciousness riff on the title itself, there’s one segment in particular that seems to serve as the song’s beating, uniquely human heart. “You greedy old wolf, I’ll show you my heart/ But not all of it, only the hateful part,” he advises, a possible rebuke to those who claim he has never once revealed enough of himself in his work, writings and interviews to satisfy those looking for something beyond the image presented. “I’ll sell you down the river, I’ll put a price on your head/ What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.” Indeed, in the aforementioned interview, Dylan indicated that “I Contain Multitudes” was written back to front, this penultimate couplet serving as the building blocks for the rest of the track. And it’s that last line, in particular, that seems to sum up everything Dylan is and ever will be, the image of him “sleep[ing] with life and death” is about as purely poetic an assessment of his life and career we could ever hope to glean from him directly. To be sure, he has and always will contain multitudes, it’s just a matter of sifting through to find traces of the real versus the purely poetic. – John Paul

“False Prophet”

A surface reading just begins to tell this story. It all begins with Ike Turner, source of the ominous, bluesy guitar figure that originated on Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s 1954 Sun records B-side, “If Lovin’ is Believing.” Barely over two minutes long, this primal story of love rejected emerged from the cradle of rock ‘n’ roll civilization and was sung by a man who gives his woman all his money and laments that it’s all for naught: “If lovin’ is believing tell me why don’t you believe in me?
“False Prophet” takes that simple but powerful guitar lick, flat-out copies the song structure (varying the line length, as if his message is too urgent), and uses it as the basis of an six-minute sermon about and from the p.o.v. of Dylan’s complex persona. The “false” is self-aggrandizing: don’t listen to what I’m saying; but the “prophet” acknowledges that, as a songwriter of some cultural standing, it’s a given he has your attention, and he did all last spring when the world began to implode.

Remember that the single was released on May 8, 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic was a fairly new phenomenon; so the opening couplet seems prescient: “Another day without end, another ship going out/ Another day of anger, bitterness and doubt.” But wait, if it’s a “false prophet” recounting this starkly accurate reflection of the world’s frustration, then what exactly is he telling us? “I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.” Name-checking Ricky Nelson and possibly Saint Augustine, Dylan reminds us again that as frivolous as pop music may seem, such false prophets as himself have the power to shake us and entertain us, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and reveal our own delusions and make us like it—a lot. By the end, he recants: “I ain’t no false prophet, I’m nobody’s bride,” the latter clause a possible reference to the church. Don’t look up to him as a role model, he seems to say, but it’s hard not to when he sets his late-career visions to the fiery template of early rock ‘n’ roll. — Pat Padua

“My Own Version of You”

Trawling through oceans of Dylan’s lyrics returns at least one recurrent kind of catch. Many of Dylan’s top songs provide enough clues to suggest that possibility of clear interpretation, but they remain ambiguous enough to keep resolution deferred. With recent cut “My Own Version of You,” Dylan delivers another one of those songs, heavily draped in allusion, full of joking play and weighted with a subtle darkness. The Frankenstein conceit centers the song explicitly; Dylan’s singer builds a new creation out of old parts and a little electricity. The band’s descending notes and organ sound locate the piece in a haunted house setting, but as Dylan speaks, we discover the twists have little to do with Mary Shelley or Vincent Price.

The question, among all the wordplay, asks who the “you” is that Dylan addresses. One path suggests he’s recreating someone who has left. Another reading sees him speaking to himself. When he sings, “I’m saying to hell to all things that I used to be,” he suggests that he’s reinventing himself, which maybe paradoxically, has been a core element of Dylan the artist. If so, the song talks directly to Dylan’s fans and critics. If we’ve spent years creating our own imagined versions of who Dylan is, he can play with that idea, stitch some limbs together and make his own version of himself.

All the play, though, obscures the sense of loss at the center of the song, and the sense of possibility. We need a new version, because a disconnect exists. Those descending notes aren’t spooky, they’re sad and alienated. Dylan’s singer feels a gap and pours himself into mad science not to fix it, but to overcome it. The absurd effort might bear fruit. Dylan can’t literally “turn back the years,” but he can reinvigorate himself and his audience. In the midst of feeling like Hamlet, he chooses to light a spark. If he can create “Someone who feels the way that I feel,” it’ll be not just life, but connection, which would be its own thunderous sort of achievement. – Justin Cober-Lake

“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You”

I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you. Let’s take a moment to read that statement a little more closely. Dylan’s always had a way with words but it’s been a long time since you could really call him wordy, at least in the same way as Warren Zevon or David Berman. He’s also not one for sickly displays of sentimentality. (Generally.) But coming from the 79-year-old Robert Allen Zimmerman, the declaration that I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you feels poignant and considered—even vulnerable—like something Leonard Cohen might have sang on the final album he finished, You Want It Darker. It’s as if Dylan, after six decades of writing and rewriting himself into history, playing songs all around the world, and shattering the singer-songwriter mold, has finally decided what he wants to devote the rest of his life to. And Dylan being Dylan, he still won’t tell us what that is.

“I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” sounds like a simple love song, written with a specific person in mind, and if we’re to judge it on those merits it’s one of Dylan’s absolute best. Waltzing and hymnlike, it sounds closer to the pop standards that Dylan spent much of this decade putting his spin on than it does his usual brew of blues and folk; the backing vocals are intimate and deeply affecting, as are Dylan’s own, so much so that it feels like he’s holding the very person he’s singing to in his arms. When he croons “I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone,” it might be the most unguarded and romantic thing he’s sung since “Sara.”

But maybe it isn’t so straightforward. You could hear “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” as a gospel song, a fleeting return to Dylan’s much-maligned Christian period: Dylan lifts the line “If I had the wings of a snow-white dove” from Ferlin Husky’s bouncy, honky-tonk “Wings of a Dove,” and his plea for “the gods [to] go easy with me” certainly looks like a final attempt to get right with any higher power that might be listening. I prefer to think that “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” is a love song, not to just one person but to everyone who has ever bought Dylan’s records and gone to his concerts—“From Salt Lake City to Birmingham/ From East L.A. to San Antone”—and pored over his words like scripture over the years. He’s already given us so much. Now, whatever is left of him, it’s ours. – Jacob Nierenberg

“Black Rider”

Sandwiched near the middle of Dylan’s exemplary new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, “Black Rider” is a haunting, spare track that sees the musician push his music towards Grand Guignol style. On initial listens, the song almost has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feel, but there is a sinister energy there that takes hold the more you hear the record.

From a technical standpoint, “Black Rider” is written in D minor, but the chord progression keeps the listener off-guard as Dylan switches from major to minor, sometimes tossing in some seventh chords. The instruments are hushed and even though it sounds like nothing more than a strummed guitar, there are faint moments of percussion and other sounds that break through.

Lyrically, the narrator of the song is warning some unseen nemesis to keep away. It could be a suitor for his wife, one of the Four Horsemen or even Satan himself, “Black Rider” continues the tradition of spirituals like “O Death.” Here Dylan is asking this assailant to pass him by and spare him over til another year.

Like many late-era Dylan tunes, “Black Rider” is full of allusions to other sources. Though the line about the size of the Black Rider’s cock may induce chuckles at first, Dylan is actually referencing a poem by Juvenal. In other instances, Dylan refers to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune, “Some Enchanted Evening,” he covered on Shadows in the Night and even the folk song “Duncan and Brady” that he covered in the ‘90s.

On an album filled with some of Dylan’s most urgent songs in years, “Black Rider” stands out as one of the best. In many ways, it is a summation of the man’s career from topical songwriter to his Christian-inspired rock. Don’t let “Black Rider” pass you by. – David Harris

“Mother of Muses”

Mnemosyne may be a tertiary figure from Greek myth, but her name endures in the lexicon by sharing a lineage with everyday words such as mnemonic and amnesia. Though technically a Titan, the literal progeny of Heaven and Earth, she is best known as the goddess of memory and remembrance. When Homer, our immortal conduit of ancient oral lore, begged Mnemosyne to sing at the start of the Iliad and Odyssey, it was for the benefit of poetic recall. He, according to apocryphal history, delivered those two foundational texts of Western literature extemporaneously in the blaze of Hellenic campfires.

Flash forward some millennia and change. Here is Bob Dylan, late in his illustrious career, taking up Homer’s mantle with ease. He too is calling on Mnemosyne, particularly in her secondary role as the matriarch of the nine muses who inspire artists from all walks of creative life. She’s the titular “Mother of Muses” he summons with gorgeous and sighing balladry on his latest album. It takes some chutzpah to draw a straight line from the Iliad to Rough and Rowdy Ways, but, hell, no one has ever accused Bob Dylan of being excessively humble.

“Mother of Muses” very much feels like it could have been written 25 years earlier and released on Time Out of Mind. There’s a gentleness, if not a wariness, to the song that harmonizes better with tracks like “Not Dark Yet” and “Standing in the Doorway” than some of the more rip-roaring compositions that followed. And its contemplative reckoning with mortality and one’s own legacy of course mirrors the central themes of his 1997 opus. In the end, it’s unclear if Dylan is begging Mnemosyne for help with his own memory, or perhaps ours with regard to him long after he’s gone. Either way “Mother of Muses” is another late-period track that, to put too fine a point on it, is unforgettable. – Peter Tabakis

“Crossing the Rubicon”

The older Bob Dylan gets, the more he seems to connect the ancient and the modern. The Bible was a fount of knowledge for him long before he went Christian, and on “Crossing the Rubicon,” his driving metaphor goes back to Julius Caesar, his symbols steeped in scripture, his patient music going on for over seven minutes of the slow blues, as if, nearing the end of his life, he’s descending into the netherworld to make good on a pact with the devil.

The title phrase has come to mean “the point of no return,” which echoes with D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back; that was a profile of a young star at his peak of fame; the resonance here, when it’s “darkest before the dawn,” is that of an old man looking back at his youthful arrogance and realizing it’s time to pay his dues. So Dylan’s biblical visions appear in almost every verse: “purgatory,” “heaven and earth.” He’s misbehaved, and he has regrets: “I’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and I’ll miss you when you’re gone.” He takes on all this in the ancient form of the blues, his grizzled voice like that of an old country bluesman worried about the troubled life he’s lived. In his early days, Dylan leaned his then-young voice into a gravelly timbre that suggested an older soul; by the time of Time out of Mind, his instrument had finally developed into the weathered voice of wisdom, and if he was too often distracted by the Great American Songbook in the last decade, he now faces mortality closer than ever, and here he’s almost ready: “The killing frost is on the ground and the autumn leaves are gone/ I lit the torch and I looked to the east and I crossed the Rubicon.” But he still has a few more statements to make before the album, and his storied recording career is over.—Pat Padua

“Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”

Bob Dylan loves Key West. He loves it enough that he has a bar stool with his name on it there. He loves it so much that “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” isn’t technically the first song that Dylan wrote about the resort island. There’s a world, then, where “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is just a song about one of Dylan’s favorite places, and it sort of is. However, that would be overlooking the fact that “Key West” is a mournful, elegiac affair that definitely has more on its mind than the southernmost point of the United States. Dylan seems to be focusing on the place as both a state of mind and as somewhere that had an unspoken allure to so many great writers and artists before him, a few of which are referred to in the song itself. Most of all, though, Dylan appears to be looking at what could exist beyond the realm in which we currently live.

Throughout “Key West,” it’s difficult to tell if Dylan’s speaker is grounded in reality. His descriptions of real-life landmarks and locations feel dreamlike in their idealization, and the island is portrayed as a place of endless bliss and equally infinite possibilities. Yet, the band’s slow, funereal march and Dylan’s muted vocals add a layer of desperation to the song. As Dylan approaches his eighties, it’s only fair that he would start thinking of what comes next, and “Key West” could be the great singer coming to grips with what a paradise in the afterlife could be with only his terrestrial experiences to interpret from. Even so, he seems far from confident in his projections, perhaps understanding that these good times in this Florida resort town could be the best that life has to offer. – Kevin Korber

“Murder Most Foul”

On “Murder Most Foul,” piano, violin, harmonium, organ, soft percussion and voice ebb and flow like unfinished thoughts as Dylan surveys the debris of history. What starts out as a relatively coherent narrative—an account of Kennedy’s death—evolves into something else entirely. Mostly allusions to names, songs, and stray lyrics of the dead. A roll call for spirits long gone. At the beginning of the song, Dylan isn’t shy about offering commentary, albeit in his tonally ambiguous way (“Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die”), but in this final sequence, Dylan lets the names speak for themselves in an eerie, epic Whitmanian catalog.

Like Whitman’s famous catalogs, Dylan speaks to his own particular angle on America—in this case, with a focus on U.S. popular music and its complicated historical resonances. For much of the 21st century, Dylan engaged more directly in this tradition than ever before. On Love and Theft and Modern Times, he conjured up the ghosts of the U.S. music history and untangled its relations to systematic racism, ecological devastation and the plight of the working class. On Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels and Triplicate, Dylan took a step back and explored the songs that told the collective story of which he was a part, resembling a painter doing a study of a Michelangelo in order to better understand their craft. In some ways, the catalog that closes “Murder Most Foul” seems like the culmination of all this study, and it feels important that at this point, Dylan chose simply to read the old names rather than add his own embellishments, casting the names as their own kind of poetry. Rather than making his own sculpture, he chose to gather the fragmentary artifacts from sculptures of the past, the ones which made him a sculptor in the first place. In collaging them thus, he has nevertheless made a monument of his own. – Tyler Dunston

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