The Look Back is an occasional column in which we dive into a notable album from a band or musician with a deep discography before they perform in Louisville.
There’s not much mystery behind the curtains of classic rock anymore. Almost all the information you need for a character portrait of any given radio icon probably exists in a sleazy tell-all autobiography, or a series of half-baked interviews, maybe even a litany of social-media overshares, but Bob Dylan is one of the few artists from that realm who still mostly remains a ghost, someone who seems more like an impossibly bizarre and captivating movie character than a real person, who speaks in riddles and stays on the move.
Dylan’s latest album, 2020’s Rough And Rowdy Ways, is probably the most personally-revealing and self-reflective of his dozens of studio albums, but, somewhat predictably, it ends up leaving more questions than answers. The opener, “I Contain Multitudes,” addresses the weirdly obsessive, half-century-long societal quest to understand Dylan’s personal life and personality with a very layered: It’s complicated. He “fights blood feuds” and “eats fast foods.” He “has no apologies to make.” He’s “a man of contradictions” and “many moods.” It’s also a song of love and heartbreak. It’s sharp, somewhat serious, a little tongue-in-cheek and it enthrallingly dances circles around a nuanced question.
It’s peak Dylan.
The following track, “False Prophet,” is a bluesy shuffle that seems to vaguely address another lifetime, when a sect of people in the ‘60s strangely treated him like a borderline messiah. He’s reminding you of the obvious, that he doesn’t have the answers, that he’s just like the rest of us — messy, searching, reflective, bitter, opinionated, volatile and sometimes slightly proud of it. He was always just really good at measuring and expressing it.
At this point, Dylan has lived numerous musical lives and has had more songwriting longevity than any of his peers, but his late-career chapter as America’s morbid lounge singer is some seriously high-quality work for the 80-year-old with a grizzled voice. His words are more rigid than they used to be, but they carry an equal amount of weight. He’s obsessed with death, and there’s no attempt to remotely conceal it. “Black Rider” grapples with the past while looking into the abyss of the dark thoughts that are always swirling, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” navigates a nostalgic minefield, while the 16-minute “Murder Most Foul” captures the magical moment when the old-timer barfly who talks in poetics remembers the feeling and temperature of a monumental piece of history in a way textbooks can’t.
Even though Rough And Rowdy Ways is an hour-long personal examination, Dylan remains shrouded in mystery — a 21st-century enigma in his line of work. Like always, his evocative and striking songs are crushing and imaginative. But this time, he opens the door a little bit more than usual, letting us see pieces of himself that usually get buried. He’s heard what we’ve said about him, and he shoots back a few reactions and a little insight.
But it’s just a glimpse, and then he’s gone — as it should be.
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