The folkie mob that infamously booed Dylan for daring to post up at 1965’s Newport Folk Festival with a rock band by his side went down in history as prudish villains, fingers forever stuck in their ears, refusing to accept the utopian future that rock-and-roll was promising. Obviously, that future never came. In his 2016 BBC documentary “HyperNormalisation,” filmmaker Adam Curtis blames much of the political left’s erosion into neoliberalism on the rock generation: “They believed that instead of trying to change the world outside, the new radicalism should try to change what was inside of people’s heads, and the way to do this was through self-expression, not collective action.”
Looking back from that position, maybe the uproar at Newport had less to do with money, celebrity, style and guitar technology and more to do with the basic utility of Bob Dylan’s voice. Instead of using it to directly skewer racists, senators and mixtures thereof, Dylan was pivoting into a new role all his own. Suddenly, he was the poet-aesthetician of our ongoing national confusion. Can we even begin to measure what was lost and gained in that moment? At the time, Dylan made the calculation sound easy. “Songs can’t save the world,” he said in 1965, after three years of trying. “I’ve gone through all that.”
Fifty-five years later, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” arrives at a moment when many are hungry for world-saving songs, or at least a better understanding of what contemporary protest music actually is. After the killing of George Floyd, a good definition is being forged in the streets: Any song heard where people gather to demand justice is a protest song, regardless of the artist’s original design. Beyond that, we like to hope that our protest music does private work, too — that it cultivates a certain empathy between our ears, changing how we might cast our votes, donate our money, volunteer our time and treat our fellow human beings.
And how’s that coming along? If anything, the surge of the information age and the decline of rock-and-roll have shown us the worthlessness of “raised awareness.” Changing our minds is easy. Changing our world is hard.
So if you think Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” sounds timely in this tumultuous summer, please go outside and see whether you can find anyone listening to it while they yank down a statue. At best, these bluesy lullabies might feel timeless — meaning that Dylan is still doing his work in the realm of the American imagination, still singing oblique lyrics about real-world injustices that never got solved, still holding up his mirror to our busted republic, showing us how cruel and absurd we’ve always been. Even through his knottiest lyrics, he’s been trying to convince us that the American Dream is a farce for more than half a century. Sadly, he deserves to sound this tired.
The album opens with “I Contain Multitudes,” a slow-motion ballad that tests the tensile strength of Walt Whitman’s declaration of self. “I’m a man of contradictions,” Dylan sings, gently dragging the words across his 79-year-old throat. “I’m a man of many moods” — and then to prove it, he declares, “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones, and them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.” He summons those three names over a descending chord progression, as if sinking into a bad idea, but it starts making sense once Dylan hits the bottom. All of these people — a child murdered by an unfathomable hate; a fictional character who ran from a boulder like Sisyphus in reverse; a crew of hairy septuagenarian multimillionaires whom we still call “boys” — live alongside one another in our cultural memory bank. “I Contain Multitudes” feels like some kind of attempt to prevent the bottomless vault of popular culture from turning into the void.
Then there’s true oblivion. “I’ve already outlived my life by far,” Dylan sings on “Mother of Muses,” tiptoeing over heavenly guitars as if trespassing in the afterlife. On “Crossing the Rubicon,” he asks, “How much longer can it last? How long can it go on?” It’s tricky to tell whether he’s speaking for America or talking to himself. When asked whether he’s been pondering his mortality of late, Dylan recently told the New York Times, “I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape.”
The assassination of John F. Kennedy is the subject of the album’s finale, “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute slog about the gunshot that supposedly stole an innocence that America never had any right to claim in the first place. The song is brutally long, oddly cavalier and lyrically lazy, with Dylan sifting through a shoe box of old Polaroids, trying to make them rhyme. “Put your head out the window, let the good times roll,” he sings. “There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll.”
By the time he reaches the song’s 10-minute mark, things begin to smooth out. Dylan is listening to Wolfman Jack’s radio show, ringing up the request line, asking to hear Etta James, and Thelonious Monk, and Queen, and the Allman Brothers, and Stevie Nicks, and an entire constellation of 20th-century stars who couldn’t save the world, either. Then, in the last line, Dylan asks to hear the song he’s singing.
In that final moment, corny and profound, Dylan makes the foundational paradox of his music feel clear: Whenever he holds his mirror up to that failing thing called America, he has to see himself, too.