Rough And Rowdy Ways, Number 39 Is Supreme Bob Dylan Storytelling

The big Bob Dylan knocks are that he’s a serial plagiarist, a user, a manipulator and most damning of all that he’s “inauthentic”. Joni Mitchell is reputed to have said about Bob “….he’s borrowed his voice from old hillbillies. He’s got a lot of borrowed things. He’s not a great guitar player. He’s invented a character to deliver his songs. It’s a mask of sorts”.

Much of what’s said against Dylan is true, but it hardly matters. It’s only somewhat cynical to say that the only truly original artists are those who borrowed or stole from other artists with whom we are unfamiliar. Still, even the artists from whom Picasso and Stravinsky lifted would probably agree that both were originals. Bob Dylan is an original.

Even the great quip “amateurs imitate, professionals steal” supposedly originated by Stravinsky (or Picasso) has been repeatedly borrowed through the years. When John Lennon said it, most of his fans unfamiliar with either Picasso or Stravinsky, or T.S. Elliot or Oscar Wilde—all of whom are also credited with originating it—probably thought Lennon so witty (which he was, but not for that!).

So, let’s ignore the plagiarism charges because Dylan himself doesn’t try to hide his lifts and so many of them are from sources most of us wouldn’t even know about were it not for discovering them through his appropriations.

His “mask of sorts” is more concerning. After Dylan’s first album flopped, he became our most influential protest singer— dubbed “the voice of a generation”. Having achieved that, he denied it and angrily dismissed those who were moved to follow his call. No one asked him to write all of those great protest songs! He repeatedly did it. He asked people to “gather ‘round!” Why was he surprised or disgusted when they did?

That aside, it’s clear his voice has always been a put-on. As a young man he affected the voice of a gravelly-sounding old man. His singing voice changed completely from album to album. The super sincerity on the protest albums gave way to a humorous, quizzical one on Blonde on Blonde, then to mystical piety on John Wesley Harding and on to a mellifluous crooner on Nashville Skyline where many longtime fans jumped ship.

The point is, if you bought into Dylan, you bought into the entire package: some lifted and/or borrowed lyrics and/or narratives, obscure or otherwise, many exquisitely turned, an ever changing and therefore always inauthentic voice and the sensation that you, as a fan were sometimes the butt of his big put-ons. There’s not that much mystery to the mysterious Mr. Dylan other than what motivates him to do some of what he does, which includes a desire to keep off-balance those willing to continue paying attention over the decades to his brilliant chicanery. He's one celebrity who's smartly controlled access.

Among many high points in Dylan’s long career have been only a few lows, like his Christian conversion albums and even those have their moments, though they sound like an artist who's not all that interested in album-making. Live, there were some lows including two shows I walked out on: one at the PNC Bank Arts Center in N.J. where he played only a cheap electric keyboard backed by a less than stellar band that clearly couldn’t give a shit about the performance or the audience. However, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers opened and put on a fantastic show. The second walk out was at Forest Hills Stadium in support of his Frank Sinatra tribute album Shadows In the Night. Actually, that was a surprisingly sincere and strong album (unlike his Christmas record!), but a very weak concert appearance. Yet I saw him again during last fall’s Beacon Theater run and it was a magical show. He was in rare form. Even the between song segue ways were perfect!

By the way, his SiriusXM radio show “Theme Time Radio Hour returns to the Deep Tracks channel September 21st at noon east coast time. The first show in honor of Bourbon Heritage Month is titled “Whiskey”. And of course, there’s his Heaven’s Door Whiskey. Not knocking it. Haven’t tried.

Which brings me to Rough and Rowdy Ways, his 39th album, the title of which was appropriated from a Jimmie Rodgers song and RCA album title, a copy of which some of you probably have.

The early release of the seventeen minute long “Murder Most Foul” (An Agatha Christie book title) was properly met with enthusiasm and appreciation particularly among the Boomer population who experienced, and were permanently traumatized by the events of 11/22/1963 and those that followed. The song is filled with cultural allusions that only increase the bond between stand-offish Dylan and his fans. As Dylan piles on the familiar references to Wolfman Jack, Jack Ruby, Marilyn Monroe, John Lee Hooker, and then The Eagles, Oscar Peterson, Monk and Parker (and all that “junk”) you hear the soundtrack to your own decades and feel the weight and then lightness of shared experiences. There are obscure references too, such as the one to Carl Wilson’s singing backup on the final track of Warren Zevon’s debut album and its final lyric. Dylan doesn’t sing the song as much as he recites it while behind, the musicians answer and amplify the basic recirculating tune.

The only other song that so well captures that period’s darkness is Greg Brown’s “Brand New ’64 Dodge”, which takes place in the weeks leading up to November 22nd, 1963 and so leaves you with the approaching dread. It’s far more devastating and never mentions the Kennedy assassination. That’s its genius. “Murder Most Foul” is another kind but no less effective.

The song is an old man looking back, reflecting solemnly on the cultural landmarks that affected his life (minus of course his own heavy contributions) all overshadowed by that murder most foul. So, it would be easy, because that’s what it sounds like, to assume Dylan produced the song and this entire album in the solitary confines of the Covid-19 lockdown but that’s simply not the case.

According to my sources, who shall remain anonymous, the album was recorded in its entirety last January and February at famed Sound City in Van Nuys, California well before the Coronavirus became cause for a lockdown, though of course while Dylan recorded, president “I don’t like shaking the hands of those disgusting people” knew all about it and how dangerous it was going to be.

The album’s opener “I Contain Multitudes” (a line from a Walt Whitman poem) is in many ways like the closer, only more playful and present tensed to let you know this guy may be old but he’s still a multi-faceted rascal having fun. You have to laugh at the way Dylan delivers “I paint landscapes, and I paint noodes”. He also loads up this song with cultural allusions—in one line managing to squeeze in Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and The Rolling Stones.

Listening for the first time I thought, “here, finally, Dylan is dropping the façade and is being himself singing directly to the listener as he’s rarely if ever done so intimately on record. It’s not a character, it’s him and if he is playing a character it's one that he’s playing more convincingly than ever. The performance turns the listen into a landmark event.

All of the songs, whether blues, gospel-tinged or even the most sincere love song, “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” are works of an older man not pretending to be anything else.

This might be Dylan’s most sincerely and most intimately delivered album even if some song lyrics, like those of “False Prophet”, are characteristically enigmatic, though heavily laced with Biblical references.

However, there’s no mistaking the meaning of the Muhammed Ali-like boast “I’m first among equals, second to none / Last of the best, you can bury the rest”. And this one: “I sing songs of love, I sing songs of betrayal,” he growls, “can’t remember when I was born, and I forget when I died.” That brought one of many out loud laughs that the album delivers.

Listening through it all in one sitting I kept thinking about how Dylan’s peers might react hearing it for the first time. For me, the album’s honesty lays bare the ridiculousness of Mick Jagger still trying to be a 70’s or even 80s era Rolling Stone or Springsteen still trying to be “The Boss”.

Dylan points the way for how aging rock stars can be real and thus remain culturally relevant as Leonard Cohen did, which is how he attracted a new, young audience.

On this extraordinary album Dylan is at various times dark, celebratory, boastful and as usual difficult to decipher. Mostly though, he’s appropriately reflective without indulging in banal nostalgia. It’s a masterful performance. One of his finest on record. Considering some of the other greats he’s delivered and that this is number 39, that’s quite a feat. He also does some of his finest actual singing. I don’t think he could have delivered these lyrics as effectively as he does here without having first worked through the American songbook albums.

However, this production has a few confounding aspects. But first, the sound and the visual setting are both perfect. No other word to use. Dylan's voice is "in the room" three dimensional and transparent. The band, spread well behind is equally transparent and though purposely mixed somewhat in the distance almost mirage-like, sounds full bodied. Bass goes seriously deep and the top end is natural and fully extended. ProTools has come a long way as has the ability of better engineers to effectively use it. Yet comparing the stream with the vinyl, the vinyl wins. If you are adamant about not buying new digital recordings on vinyl, you are missing out on a superb sonic experience the streams don't provide. Don't ask me why, but assuming you are a Dylan fan and have a vinyl collection, you should add this one to the collection.

Chris Shaw’s engineering and 96/24 mix paint an ideal, intimate sonic picture. You can just about see Dylan sitting in a chair, lyric book open, reciting his lines while behind the musicians in a circle play the soothing, sometimes dreamy, sometimes raucous accompaniment. Whether or not he was actually sitting, standing or lying sideways, it sounds as if he was sitting in front of a microphone.

Whether or not the tracks were recorded live as they were on the “standards” albums, they sound as if they were, and Mr. Shaw gives nothing away since he wishes to remain in secretive Bob Dylan’s good graces.

Dylan keeps secrets, among the most frustrating here is why he so poorly treated Blake Mills.

In the mainstream reviews I’ve read along with citing touring regulars appearing here (guitarists Charlie Sexton [who live is a show worth watching unto himself] Bob Britt and the multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, plus bass guitarist Tony Garnier and drummer Matt Chamberlain), you read about minor players Fiona Apple and Benmont Tench but almost never does anyone mention Blake Mills!

So, assuming you’ve played this album through numerous times, it’s your turn to listen to Mills play solo some of his guitar parts that form the memorable musical backbones to so many of the tunes.

“I Contain Multitudes”:

“Crossing the Rubicon”:

“I’ve Made Up My mind to Give My Heart To You”

“Black Rider”

Can you tell me why Mills is listed in small print near the bottom? Better yet, can Bob?

Greg Calbi mastered from the 96/24 files, which were sent to Sterling Sound Nashville where Joe Nino-Hernes cut lacquers for both United Record Pressing, Nashville and MPO in France.

Now, to URP’s credit, it did an excellent job pressing thick, physically attractive 180g+ records. However, the same lacquers plated and pressed by MPO achieve a level of transparency, intimacy and background quiet along with transient precision that by comparison make the URP pressing sound noisy, even though there’s not overt noise. Clearly the differences are plating and vinyl pellet quality. If you love this record, even if you have the URP pressing, try to get the MPO pressing on either AmazonUK or Discogs). I’m sure you’ll agree it was worth spending the money. Rough and Rowdy Ways is the perfect “lockdown” listening companion. It’s a memorable one-on-one with Bob Dylan that leaves a long-lived reflective afterglow.

Music Direct Buy It Now

COMMENTS
MalachiLui's picture

submitting my take on it in the next review explosion (very soon). did united do a good job pressing THICK records? yeah. did they do a good job pressing warped records? yes. did they do a good job plating lacquers? absolutely not. did they do a good job packaging them? hell no. my first set was unplayably warped, and the second set had two LP2's. completely skip ALL of the US pressings, and just import the EU ones (JPC[.de] is a good place to buy from, with reasonable shipping too).

Matthew's picture

Totally disappointed with the US pressing -- especially given how extraordinary this music is. Mine was also warped, noisy, and completely underwhelming. It sounded like "I Contain Multitudes" was being sung in an aluminum-coated shower.

Michael, thanks for the tip on the MPO pressing. Just ordered it. Looking forward to sitting down with this, and a pressing that does this music justice.

Flatbubba's picture

Amazon UK doesn't specify pressing plant. Does ordering from them automatically give you the MPO version?

Jazz listener's picture

given Mr. Fremer’s excellent review. You may want to focus your efforts elsewhere.

MalachiLui's picture

multiple perspectives and opinions are always good

Anton D's picture

I would have told him to suck either more, or fewer, lemons.

He can't be a real jazz listener, real jazz listeners aren't such dicks.

I bit the bullet and ended up with yellow, olive, black, and I think one other pressing.

It's a disease!

kleinbje's picture

nt

Glotz's picture

Always set good examples for young adults... or they will remember the asshats!

2_channel_ears's picture

The only concert I ever walked out of was Dylan. A few years ago now I won tickets from my local NPR station. John Mellencamp was the opener and blew the crowd away. Then Mr. D came out in all his Leon Redbone attire. The sound engineer unfortunately followed command and threw all the switches about 3 dB past distortion level. Bob's voice was muddled and lost in the noise. After a few songs my friend I left the scene.

In March, coming back from a ski trip and having been off the grid for several days and just catching up on the lockdown, I heard Murder Most Foul on the radio. It was an eerie return to the real yet unimaginable world. Bob gets the Grammy for this one.

Bigmule1972's picture

I took my 11 year old daughter to see him last November in Muncie, Indiana....before going, I knew his shows can be hit or miss...we had awesome seats and ended up leaving after 5 songs. The band volume was 2-3 times louder than Bob’s vocals, we could barely hear him. I blame the sound engineer on that night as the venue acoustics were spectacular. Still love Dylan.

I’m glad she was able to see him, and now we have a great memory and funny story. I guess that’s what I love about live shows...you NEVER know what will happen.

BTW...I’m the weirdo in the 90’s that also walked out on:
Neil Young,
BB King,
and....Axl Rose ....twice !!...

PeterPani's picture

The Indie Gold Edition (with a Ortofon Jubilee) beats the MPO pressing on my TD 124. Since 2003 I went live to Dylan every year (except 2020, you know the reason). Hearing him every year makes something. Even bad concerts get good. An unbelievable highlight was in Sweden 2017 in a tiny sports hall in the size of half a soccer field. This was unforgettable magic, the band‘s playing locked in with Dylan‘s efforts to nail it down. Dylan gives so much hope. If people would listen to him more the world would be a better place. It makes something with you, if you do it regularly.
Regarding his Christmas album: no other Xmas album is played so often around Xmas as his in our household.

Anton D's picture

OK, you got me to bite on the Gold Edition! (Thank you!)

Nothing like having 3 pressings of the same album to compare!

Tough thing about being a vinyl lover is those damned “other pressings.” We suffer uniquely.

PeterPani's picture

is still another EU-pressing made exclusively for Spain...
Funny, in the vinyl-crisis of the 90's it was easier. There was always only one pressing around.

Lazer's picture

The indie store gold album... couldn’t be happier.

Flatbubba's picture

URP or MPO or elsewhere?

PeterPani's picture

says US... . So it is pressed in USA. My guess is URP. But my indie gold edition has no ticks. Just a mild steady sshhh (might be the coloured vinyl) compared to the MPO-pressing. But Dylans voice sounds a little little more distinct (whatever the reason is)... on the indie gold.

MalachiLui's picture

ALL US variants were done at united, and ALL EU variants were done at MPO. same JN-H STERLING mastering, but the US ones absolutely suck. import the EU pressing if you like this record.

Flatbubba's picture

automatically gets you the MPO version, correct? Pressing plant isn't mentioned on the page.

MalachiLui's picture

of course pressing plant won't be mentioned on sites like amazon, but nearly anything you buy from UK/EU retailers will be the EU pressing (unless there's a single worldwide pressing).

hans altena's picture

Great review of a great record, my MPO sounds so detailed and with so much dynamics, which is needed, because the singing and the playing is so subtle (some of my friends say they wished it would rock more, well that was not the intention here). The difference with Tempest, which I regard highly but has some dull moments, especially in the title song, is that the trance like repetition which Dylan is more and more focussing on since Modern Times is now enlightened by very intricate variations (comparable with the electric guitar on Desolation Row). This is probably due to the influence of Blake Mills, who indeed should have gotten more due, I suspect as well that he had some influence on the production! Murder Most Foul offers some of the most beautiful drumming behind the rapterous piano playing, if you listen closely, and I dare say that Matt Chamberlain also contributes to a higher level in terms of music on the whole album.

hans altena's picture

Great review of a great record, my MPO sounds so detailed and with so much dynamics, which is needed, because the singing and the playing is so subtle (some of my friends say they wished it would rock more, well that was not the intention here). The difference with Tempest, which I regard highly but has some dull moments, especially in the title song, is that the trance like repetition which Dylan is more and more focussing on since Modern Times is now enlightened by very intricate variations (comparable with the electric guitar on Desolation Row). This is probably due to the influence of Blake Mills, who indeed should have gotten more due, I suspect as well that he had some influence on the production! Murder Most Foul offers some of the most beautiful drumming behind the rapterous piano playing, if you listen closely, and I dare say that Matt Chamberlain also contributes to a higher level in terms of music on the whole album.

Chemguy's picture

...I can go for. I was initially blanching at the 10 for sound, but I see that my US pressing may be to blame, there. But is it truly THAT different? I find the sonics to be somewhat compressed and lacking dynamic nuance. Just sounds like a digital to analogue recording to these ears.

Michael Fremer's picture
That different: MPO vs BURP
JE WARD's picture

Thank You.!!

Alfredo58's picture

Fantastic album, well mastered, but the pressing quality is subpar. I got the Gold vinyl pressing, but even after an ultrasonic cleaning it plays with a lot of tics. I’ll look into the MPO pressing.

AnalogJ's picture

I just enjoyed taking it in. Frankly, I didn't pay attention to the album's release, but I will now. Thanks Michael.

eugeneharrington's picture

I was circumspect about the purchase of the MPO 2LP EU pressed edition of ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’. MPO was one of the great pressing plants in the 80s/90s and well into the 2000s. However, things began to go awry circa 2016 and since then it has been unreliable, in my experience. I was glad however, on playing this set, to hear a flawless pressing over all four sides, this after a full wet and ultrasonic cleaning. Michael’s advice to purchase the MPO EU edition is well given. I cannot rationalize why Sony/Columbia would send such an ‘important’ album, from a very important artist, to URP for pressing. Everybody knows the score with URP and most people I know avoid anything from that plant. It mystifies me, as a European, how American vinyl enthusiasts continue to be ‘short changed’ like this. There are, at least, three excellent pressing plants in the U.S.A. and Sony/Columbia picks URP for its premier recording artist? Bizarre.

saxman73's picture

I bought the US pressing and had to return it. It sounds great, and beats the 96/24 files (though they do sound good, too), but my copy skipped at the end of side A, and was quite noisy. The second disc was warped. I got the MPO pressed copy and it's near flawless. Well worth it. I love the album!

Jerome Sabbagh

Glotz's picture

Oh jeez I hope it's there...

-And people be nice to Malachi or God will destroy in your sleep!

Glotz's picture

WOOOT WOOOOT!

Glotz's picture

I am just so grateful for this album and this song.

I couldn't even sit down for this one... I had to hear spoken right to me, as close as humanly possible.

I expected him to finish with the word SIN, and when he said TEARS,

I broke down crying.. I felt convicted and loved. Thank you BOB!

Praise God.

Zardoz's picture

I can't really tell which version I got from Music Direct, but I think it is a US version. I have ordered one from jpc (Thanks Malachi) and will let you know if I hear a difference.
I've seen this listed as a single disc as well as the double disc I have. Are you guys saying the single disc is bad and that the double is good? Because my 2 disc set, while it has a very slight warp to disc 1, no big deal, is dead silent and there are no pops of any kind. Sound is very good at this point, but I'll see after I get the MPO from jpc.

Michael Fremer's picture
That must be a typo or something. It's only a double LP set...
Zardoz's picture

My copy sounds pretty good, so I'm anxious to hear the MPO.

Martin's picture

So I dropped by the music store and picked up the MPO pressing.
After having already the US press from Elusive disc...

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