The mood of deep reflection was set in March by Murder Most Foul, the 17-minute ballad that became Dylan’s first Billboard number one in 58 years of recording. “What is the truth, and where did it go?” he wondered in his paper-dry croon. “Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.”
The song flashes back and forth in time through a hundred iconic references — the Beatles, Rhett Butler, Etta James, Shakespeare, Bugsy Siegel, Stevie Nicks — with the obscenity of JFK’s assassination the grim centre that explains everything. For an artist who was two albums old at the time, maybe it does.
Other songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways seem intent on a similar cataloguing of human wisdom and experience. The first two minutes of I Contain Multitudes reference Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Mott the Hoople, Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, the Rolling Stones and William Blake.
Mother of Muses recalls Montgomery and Patton; Elvis and Martin Luther King. False Prophet names Pacino, Brando, Liberace and several saints. Elsewhere lie Ginsberg and Kerouac, Hendrix and Satchmo, Jimmy Reed and Harry Truman. “If you want to remember,” Dylan sings in Murder Most Foul, “you better write down the names.”
The thread of accumulated history is reflected in the music, which has long transcended folk and rock to draw on the vast palette of American music. Since his last original album of 2012, Tempest, Dylan and his longstanding band have released five CDs of classic American songbook covers.
That’s the basis of the folk tradition, of course: respectful accumulation of the wisdom and materials of the past, perpetually reinterpreted by subsequent generations to tell a bigger story of who we are. “I like to stay a part of that stuff that don’t change,” goes one classic Dylan quote from 1985.
“Our world is already obsolete,” Dylan told The New York Times in his only interview for the new album so far. “We have a tendency to live in the past, but that’s only us. Youngsters don’t have that tendency. They have no past, so all they know is what they see and hear, and they’ll believe anything.”
The former Robert Zimmerman’s reputation as an arch manipulator of truth has been legendary since he fabricated his backstory as a freight-train hobo in 1962. This time last year, he abetted Martin Scorsese’s deceptively fictionalised documentary of his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, splitting fans into camps of outrage and delight.
Despite its litany of historic references, Rough and Rowdy Ways is no more cut-and-dried. Titles such as False Prophet, Black Rider and Key West (Philosophy Pirate) will have social media threads and late-night record clubbers combing for clues. Crossing the Rubicon might be read as another intimation of the artist’s looming mortality. But even veiled autobiography has seldom been Dylan’s style.
“I think about [death] in general terms, not in a personal way,” he told The New York Times. “I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape. Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death.”
Rough and Rowdy Ways continues the gravity-defying trajectory of Dylan’s work during the past two decades to be considered among the finest albums of the creative renaissance that began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind. In impeccably articulated style, sound and subject matter, it stands beside Love and Theft, Modern Times and Tempest in a new canon ripe for discovery in its own time, independent of past glories. Those Nobel naysayers of 2016 may choose to stick with their novelists, essayists, poets and playwrights, but this is how history gets written.
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer