In June of this year, American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan released his 39th studio album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” It’s Dylan’s first album of original songs since 2012’s “Tempest,” a collection of dark and disdainful tracks that received praise from critics and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. However, though “Tempest” was widely acclaimed by music critics, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” took it one step further, receiving universal praise, with many even describing it as one of Dylan’s best works. The album reached No. 1 on music charts in over 10 countries, and hit No. 2 in the U.S.
The first release came without warning, making waves in the music community. “Murder Most Foul” was released completely unannounced in late March, a few months before the album’s debut, which was a shocking surprise to fans who hadn’t heard a new original song from Dylan in eight years. In the ballad, he details the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and discusses the event’s historical and political context.
In a stream-of-consciousness style of singing, Dylan weaves a grim story of the past. With dark lyrics like “They blew off his head while he was still in the car / Shot down like a dog in broad daylight,” the song’s somber mood is established early on.
At nearly 17 minutes long, “Murder Most Foul” is also Dylan’s longest song to date, surpassing his song “Highlands.” Without a doubt, “Murder Most Foul” is the most unique track from “Rough and Rowdy Ways.” If you only listen to one song on the album, let it be this one.
“I Contain Multitudes” was the second single, released on April 17. Like “Murder Most Foul,” it references film, history and literature, though this time in a more compact way. At just under five minutes long, this is actually one of the shortest songs on the album.
In this track, Dylan reminds us that he’s complex, unable to be contained in one box or summed up in a simple way. To prove this, Dylan continuously contradicts himself, with lyrics like “I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods / I contain multitudes” and “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods.”
What’s important to remember when listening to the track is that Dylan is saying these things about himself, but he’s also projecting this idea onto the audience, reminding us that we are infinitely complicated as well.
As rock critic Ken Tucker said in an NPR Music review of the song, “He’s insisting that we each contain multitudes, that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to one identity, one ideology, one set of facts about our lives.”
Following “I Contain Multitudes” came the announcement of the 10-track album, much to the excitement of fans and critics who were hoping the two singles were foreshadowing a full-length album release. To anyone familiar with Dylan’s past work, it’s no surprise that the rest of the album — much like previous ones — is chock-full of symbolism and references to other musicians and historical events.
But the question stands — why should we listen? To many Gen Zers and even millennials, 79-year-old Dylan may seem irrelevant, or at the very least an old guy that your parents listen to. I grew up listening to Dylan’s 2009 “Christmas in the Heart” album that my dad liked to play during the holidays.
While his unique raspy voice and songwriting style made him one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, his type of music has been displaced by pop and rap. Now that the times are a-changing’ in the music world, what is the importance of boomer-beloved Dylan to younger generations?
Back in 2015, there was a rumor that the popular millennial phrase “I can’t even” was originally coined by Dylan, who uttered “I can’t. I can’t even…” during a 1966 studio session recording of his song “She’s Your Lover Now.” While this interesting rumor is seemingly Dylan’s only connection to younger generations, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” can be appreciated by people of all ages.
While he may be a tad older than popular artists today, and many of his historical references might go over their heads, his lyrics can relate to anyone. His easygoing track “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” has a classic-love-song vibe that can be enjoyed by romantics of all generations. It would be tough for young people to not be melted by poetic lyrics like “I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn / I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone.”
Dylan also seems to share ideologies similar to that of the younger generations. In a New York Times interview about “Rough and Rowdy Ways” that took place the day after George Floyd’s murder in Dylan’s home state of Minnesota, he said, “It sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that. It was beyond ugly. Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation.”
This isn’t the first time Dylan has expressed his contempt for racial injustice. In the midst of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Dylan wrote songs like “George Jackson” and “Only a Pawn in Their Game” to bring light to police brutality and white privilege. In a society where Gen Z is known for pushing back against racial violence, maybe Dylan isn’t that different from us after all.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” covers a wide range of topics and ideas. From dark historical ballads to acoustic love songs, Dylan definitely proved that he does, in fact, contain multitudes. Whether you’re listening for the nostalgia, you’re a history buff or you just like Dylan’s style, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” is definitely a must-hear album — no matter how young you are.