In troubling times people can’t help but instinctively turn to their cultural heroes for, if not an explanation, but some eloquence. Some grace, some poetry. No answer, just perspective. Allen Ginsberg was so good at that, an elder statesman with a wonderful way with words, and although Bob Dylan prefers to be cryptic than his old buddy Ginsberg was, he has an uncanny knack for saying the right thing at just the right time. And I have no idea how intentional “Murder Most Foul”’s timing was early this year as the pandemic started to take its toll, but at the moment it was exactly what a lot of folks needed.
After three lovely albums that saw him interpreting American standards, Dylan returned in eerily timely manner in 2020 with Rough and Rowdy Ways, his most fascinating collection of original material since 2001’s Love and Theft. The man is as enigmatic as ever throughout these ten sprawling tracks, but when he spits out lines that reflect this past year, arguably the most tumultuous year since 1968, one can’t help but wonder if his playful declaration “I ain’t no false prophet” is actually serious. Elderly Dylan clearly gets a real kick out of playing the trickster, right down to the music: his band is having as much fun as their leader is, masterfully weaving from blues, to country, to folk, to more abstract, ambient tones as heard on “I Contain Multitudes”. His lyrics are gorgeous, the biggest standouts being the aforementioned “Multitudes”, “Crossing the Rubicon”, and the meditative “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)”.
The first nine tracks would have sufficed just fine, but Dylan made collective jaws drop in early 2020 with the stunning 17-minute “Murder Most Foul”, a rambling, stream of consciousness meditation about the Kennedy assassination and the culture that was shaped by it a half-century later. For all the reminiscing of all the pop culture signposts Bob mentions, he aims straight for your heart when he says, “The day they killed him, someone said to me, ‘Son, the age of the antichrist has just only begun.” He would know. This year needed a major statement from someone like Dylan, and he delivered, in haunting fashion.