Why Bob Dylan’s Newest Album is Cathartic
With the release of Bob Dylan’s 39th studio album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” one is left wondering how anyone could arouse such anticipation and excitement in the music world after all this time in the business. Bob Dylan is now 79 years old, and he has shown us more sides of himself than any musical artist in history. He has touched numerous generations, and each of us think of a distinct era with which we associate Dylan. We like to try and capture him in time, put him in a picture frame on our wall, and preserve whatever it is that we consider ‘true’ Bob Dylan. For some of us it is only one era. For me it is multiple decades, though only up to a point. Only the hard-core Dylan fans have listened to it all and celebrate his entire catalogue.
My mother was a folky. In her mind, Bob Dylan is still playing with Joan Baez at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s. He is still writing political protest songs. I graduated in 1999, but for whatever reason, “Blood on the Tracks” was originally where I drew my line. It is not that I don’t appreciate later works, especially “Time Out of Mind,” it is just that I had trouble considering other albums worthy of the Bob Dylan monument that I had constructed in my mind.
I was busy listening to a man from the past, even though Dylan had not walked away from the present. Everyone is full of advice when it comes to ‘walking away.’ You see this in sports all of the time. Why not go out with a Superbowl? And, at more than one point in my life, I would have been okay with Bob Dylan walking away.
I saw Dylan for the last time in 2001. I will never forget it because I was in charge of ordering 4 front row tickets, 100 dollars apiece, and I was a poor undergrad. After consuming a few beers, I ordered tickets for Charleston, WV instead of Charlotte, NC. I panicked thinking that my friends would not attend, and I would lose all of the money. In retrospect, I guess I could have called and exchanged the tickets, but it somehow did not occur to me. But we were young and just rolled with it. We drove up to West Virginia and home to Chapel Hill, NC in one night.
I mention it simply because later, when Bob Dylan decided to stop playing guitar in concert, I drew another line. “It is not truly Bob Dylan if he is not playing a guitar!” I said. I refused to see him again. I took a great picture of Bob Dylan in Charleston that night and memorialized it by putting it in a frame with the ticket stub. “Dylan was still Dylan then,” I say when I see it.
This kind of typecasting is not unique to Bob Dylan. I have the same trouble with another one of my favorite bands, Phish, who has also been making music for decades. I remember when I first started listening to them, older fans scoffed at ‘new’ material that I considered quintessential Phish. Now those albums are ancient, and I can’t listen to the new ones that the kids are celebrating.
The only difference with Bob Dylan is that he has done it the longest, and so it seems everyone has an opinion. Everybody is quick to label him, brand him outside of time, and put him on the wall. But Bob Dylan has never liked labels. Never has. This becomes obvious if you ever thumb through “Tarantula,” or simply read any of his interviews, ever. Interviewers are always trying to squeeze some meaning out of him. They seem to want to scream, “Who are you! Are you a poet or a songwriter first and foremost? If you are only a songwriter, we may not be able to give you a Nobel prize. Are you a Christian? If so, what happens in the afterlife? Is the Joker in “All Along the Watchtower,” Jesus Christ or not?
And when he cleverly skirts the question and uses his outstanding wit and word craft to respond cryptically, we accuse him of hubris or being difficult for no reason. We speculate that he must like being mysterious. After all, why else would he fabricate stories about certain parts of his life other than to intentionally create intrigue and mystery around himself?
I have been guilty of thinking and saying these things, as if I had access to Bob Dylan’s brain, and it got me nowhere in my quest to relate to him more intimately. In fact, it did the opposite. It was only later that I tried a different approach, and only this month that it really paid off for me. I have developed a different view, through the years, and in listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, I am reaching catharsis.
The new album gives me reason to believe that in the past, Dylan was not always mischievously intending to create confusion about himself, as I formerly believed. I think he was merely demonstrating that meaning is a relative function of perspective, and perspective is always changing. The title of the first song on his new album says it all: “I Contain Multitudes.”
Dylan is always recreating himself, because he is always learning something new and experiencing life from different perspectives. Arn’t we all? Bob Dylan’s art has endless meaning because the audience is always changing. As we grow older, our insight evolves. For anyone who has ever created a work of art, you might find that a work means different things to you at different points in your life. Anyone may experience this with a favorite song. The song of heartbreak from high school is now a celebration of young love. The Joker is Jesus, and he is not.
Therefore, arguing and comparing different Dylan eras in an effort to extract something objective, in this context, is futile. It is like comparing athletes from different generations. There is no right answer, only compelling arguments. And as I have gotten older, I have come to the realization that Bob Dylan is not in a contest with himself. That is my doing.
I first found myself considering this point when Martin Scorsese released the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home.” The documentary makes many points, but the one that stuck with me is very simple, though hard to remember at times: Bob Dylan is a human, first and foremost. He changes his points of view. He evolves in his philosophies and beliefs. He is more than a myth or a legend. They say legends never die. Bob Dylan, the man, will. Then we can deify him. But for now, Bob Dylan is still a growing person, and he shows us that with his new album. As we keep trying to capture Dylan, and memorialize him before he is even gone, he is still making music.
If there is anything that resonates with me on “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” it is that Bob Dylan is closer to voicing his humanness than ever before. Not only does he demonstrate that meaning is fleeting, he voices it. The first track is called, “I Contain Multitudes.” He says, “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods, I contain, multitudes.” In “False Prophet,” he confronts his legacy head on: “I know how it happened, I saw it begin, I opened my heart to the world and the world came in” and “I ain’t no false prophet, I just know what I know, I go where only the lonely can go.” And finally, he confronts us as listeners as we debate the eras, “Can’t remember when I was born, and I forgot when I died.”
In “My Own Version of You,” Bob admits that as a human, he is also at times guilty of applying unreasonable standards for others, or maybe to himself. Through a quirky, Frankenstein-like theme, he says, “I’ll Bring Someone to life, is what I wanna do, I want to create my own version of you.” In “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You,” he makes a tribute to his fans, and in “Black Rider” he is confronting death. He broaches the subject of the creative process in “Mother of Muses,” and imagines living out his life in Key West in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).”
Through it all, he ties all of it together using a multitude of literary and mythical references that are not as cryptic as you might find in oldies like “Desolation Row,” but much more direct. He is willing to attach the names of people and places more concretely. “I was born on the wrong side of the track, like Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac,” and “Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr. Poe,” and “I sing songs of experience, like William Blake.”
And finally, he ends with the 17 minute, “A Murder Most Foul,” where he uses the JFK assassination as a jumping off point to explore an endless collage of themes, allusions, and characters, stitching together an other-worldly quilt of his own making. Isn’t that what he has always done? Only now, he lets us watch. We have glimpsed a part of Dylan’s vision, of his personal world.
In my experience, Dylan’s vision is first and foremost expressed in the words, more often than not. The music on this album is secondary to the lyrics. It is mellow, and because Dylan does not always voice the melody properly, it is difficult to give the tunes a fair shake. But that is okay, with me. I am trying to experience this album for what it is, and not fall into the trap I always set for myself: putting Dylan into a boxing ring with his former self. It takes an effort on my part, but I am growing as a person who is willing to put personal biases aside and open my mind to something new. Bob Dylan and I are growing older together.