Recording of October 2020: Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways

Columbia C-250652 194397980991 (2LP; also available on CD and as 24/96 FLAC download) Chris Shaw, eng.; Greg Calbi, mastering.

Performance *****

Sonics ****

The stats alone are impressive—or, as we at Stereophile like to say, the measurements. 79-year-old Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album is his first album of original material since 2012. Rough and Rowdy Ways times out at more than 70 minutes of music, due in part to the inclusion of Dylan’s lengthiest studio song to date, “Murder Most Foul,” which runs 16 minutes, 54 seconds. The LP version requires 2 discs. His tour was supposed to be Never Ending—but it did end, temporarily, because of COVID-19, just as Dylan and the band were set to play Japan.

Instead, Bob has apparently been keeping himself busy, making whiskey, music in the studio, and art: If you visit the website for his Heaven’s Door Spirits, at heavensdoor.com, you will find examples of his recent paintings and ironwork sculptures.

It was a real pleasure to finally open up the vinyl release of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Despite the early availability of the streaming version, I stubbornly waited to listen to this album until I had received the 2-LP set, my copies of which were fairly flat and quiet. Rough and Rowdy Ways was recorded in January and February of this year at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California. Dylan’s recording band continues to be drawn from long-standing touring personnel. Speaking of stats/measurements: a shout-out to bassist Tony Garnier, who has been playing with Bob for 31 years—not as long as Freddie Green’s 50 for Basie or Harry Carney’s 47 for Ellington, but impressive nonetheless. There are a few new musicians in the mix, notably youngish guitarist/producer Blake Mills.

Most people who write about Dylan focus on the lyrics, but I am, as Phil Lesh put it, searching for the sound. At some point, Dylan started paying more attention to the sound of his recordings. He has said in interviews that in his early years he was eager to “get in and out” of the studio. More recently, he has self-produced using the pseudonym Jack Frost. No producer is mentioned in the credits for Rough and Rowdy Ways, though my spies tell me that Blake Mills may have contributed.

Whoever’s responsible, the album’s sonics feature amber-burnished timbres, the musical equivalent of a fine bourbon. There’s almost a hint of aged oak in Dylan’s voice—American oak of course—and the way it is miked is interesting: always clear, full-range, and intimate but with EQ that varies from track to track. The finely recorded textures subtly interweave mostly acoustic and electric guitars, upright bass, and drums. Pedal steel and low-percussion glue darken the musical canvas. This is acoustically subtle stuff that will bear repeated listening through a good system. As fine as the 24/96 hi-rez version sounds with my current gear—I finally listened after I heard the vinyl—the vinyl transfer, which is from a digital master, presents a different tactile chemistry.

Not enough credit and attention are given to Dylan’s melodic gifts; if you can write a tune as haunting as “Girl From the North Country,” the world would like to hear it. Not all of his songs call for it, but he can deliver a beautiful melody at any time.

Bob turns most often to two basic song forms: verses with refrains and 12-bar blues. Rough and Rowdy Ways mostly utilizes these two basic types. Dylan acknowledges his musical roots and sources loudly and clearly on this album, including Beethoven’s piano sonatas, which are mentioned in two different songs.

The lyrics on Rough and Rowdy Ways go every which way. Some are a raging Joycean stream of consciousness; others are tight and hard-hitting as a drum. Sometimes they feel like a slap in the face with a fish. In “I Contain Multitudes” (the title is from Whitman), Anne Frank and Indiana Jones cohabit the same line. Biblical and Roman images float next to a bar stool in Key West. Perhaps he’s writing about his life on the road. Humor is an arrow in his quiver—one that few contemporary songwriters seem to possess. How many living songwriters, other than Bob, would rhyme Leon Russell with St. John the Apostle?

The album ends with “Murder Most Foul,” which gives us Dylan’s personal R2D4: dozens of artists and their songs, the music that he loves. That alone is worth the purchase price.

Thank you, Bob. Carry on.—Sasha Matson

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