I’ll bring someone to life, is what I wanna do,” Bob Dylan sings on the quirkily macabre folk song “My Own Version of You”, the third track of his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways. “I’m gonna create my own version of you.”
Almost every Dylan fan has their own version of Bob, and across his extensive career (Rough and Rowdy Ways is his 39th studio album), Dylan has provided plenty of raw material – the “necessary body parts” as he puts it on “My Own Version of You”.
For the uninitiated, the Dylan that most immediately springs to mind is probably the one who wrote protest songs in the 1960s and 1970s. These are the songs that feel most immediately and obviously relevant in 2020: like the 1964 folk ballad “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, about the death of an African-American barmaid at the hands of a white tobacco farmer “who killed for no reason/who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’”, and was given nothing more than a “six-month sentence”. Or the urgent, propulsive “Hurricane” (1975), about a boxer, Rubin Carter, who goes to prison “for something that he never done”. “If you’re black, you might as well not show up on the street, unless you wanna draw the heat,” Dylan half-sings, half-howls. (Carter’s conviction was eventually overturned in 1985.) But Dylan aficionados know that the man himself has a more complicated and varied history than that – not least because between the release of “Lonesome Death” and “Hurricane” Dylan “went electric”, to the disgust of some of his original folk fans.
There’s the born-again evangelical Dylan of the late Seventies and early Eighties who warned, his voice cracking, on “When He Returns” (1979) that “the strongest wall will crumble and fall to a mighty God”; and rejoiced in the gospel-influenced 1980 track “Saved” that “I’ve been saved/by the blood of the lamb”. There’s the cryptic Dylan whose lyrics reveal endless double-meanings, as on “Ballad of A Thin Man”. “And you say: what does this mean?” Dylan sneers at an inquisitive journalist, “And he screams back: you’re a cow! Give me some milk or else go home.” Then there’s the Dylan who opts for simple, atmospheric lyrics buoyed by the music: “the beach is deserted, except for some kelp”, he sings over Scarlet Rivera’s violin in the flawless 1976 ballad “Sara”.
Even the same song, performed in different decades, can take on new meanings when sung by different Dylans. On the 1975 studio version of “Tangled Up In Blue” he sings, “She was married when we first met /Soon to be divorced”. In a 1981 version, the pronouns have shifted from the first to the third person, and the same woman appears once she has already been left “penniless in a state of regret” – a small but important shifting of the narrative.
The Dylan of Rough and Rowdy Ways is a different one again: the richer, deeper, gravelly-voiced Dylan that emerged in Oh Mercy (1989), and has, in different ways, defined his highest peaks in the three and a half decades since – be it in the 1997 single “Not Dark Yet” or his 2006 album Modern Times. This Dylan still experiments with the same religious imagery of “When He Returns” or “Saved”, but with greater subtlety; he still writes protest music, but his songs frequently have a meaning that can’t easily be divined.
When he sings on “My Own Version of You” of “the burnin’ hell/where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell: Mr Freud with his dreams, Mr Marx with his axe”, is his tongue in his cheek? Or is he really consigning the inventor of psycho-analysis and the author of The Communist Manifesto to the pit? Is the melancholy ballad “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” a romantic serenade, or is it a song about settling for someone because you can’t bear to be alone? Even “Murder Most Foul”, a 16-minute-long ballad about the killing of President John F Kennedy, will have Dylanologists arguing over the meaning of his lyrics for decades: Dylan’s reference to JFK’s killers, plural, indicates a rejection of the official story that Kennedy’s assassination was solely the work of Lee Harvey Oswald – but some lyrics point to one possible group of perpetrators, and some to another.
Rough and Rowdy Ways similarly points in one direction, then another: mixing electric and classical guitar; at times returning to the strict folk of his early work, at others the raspy rock of his later periods. Dylan’s latest record is a reflection of his long career to date, combining political protests, elegiac reflections, comically surreal digressions and eclectic references: serving both as an introduction to him for new listeners, and a thrilling success for diehard fans.
“Rough and Rowdy Ways” is out now on Colum
This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis