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Bob Dylan Sounds Like He Could Go on Forever

On ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways,’ his first album of new material in eight years, Dylan sounds as alive as ever, even if the songs come with a hint of orneriness

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In summer 2003, I caught an outdoor Bob Dylan show in a field next to a casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The stage was so skeletal you could see his tour bus parked directly behind it; he didn’t banter much but played for 90 minutes or so, including a growly but more or less recognizable double-shot encore of “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower.” Then he and his band waved goodbye and left the stage again, to raucous, sustained applause, everyone in the bleachers up on their feet, reverent and eager for more. Yes! No! Don’t go! Play another one! Play five! And so we stood there, whooping and clapping hopefully, as Bob and the boys sauntered backstage and, in full view of everyone, piled into the tour bus and drove away.

Amazing. For several miles we watched, still whooping, still clapping—Huh, maybe he’ll come back—as the bus puttered down the road, away from us, vanishing over a hill just as all our cheers finally petered out. Huh, I guess not. Incredible. That’s how you do it. That’s rock ‘n’ roll.

What an exit. What a legend.

And a living legend, crucially. He is not your jukebox; he is not your pet dinosaur; he is not your link with history. That applause—sustained, desperate, hilarious, increasingly confused, ultimately futile—is my all-time favorite Dylan song. And it’s still ringing in my ears 17 years later, and harmonizing quite beautifully with the louche, bluesy racket of Friday’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first album of new material in eight years. Please enjoy, therein, the goofball musings and gritty travails of an ornery-ass man forever dedicated to turning our reverence for him into a joke on us.

My second-favorite Dylan song is “Not Dark Yet,” from 1997’s Time Out of Mind, a startling ballad with the same elegiac vibe as the rad but shattering-in-retrospect final albums from Johnny Cash, or Warren Zevon, or David Bowie, or John Prine. “It’s not dark yet,” he croaked, clearly knocking on somebody’s door. “But it’s gettin’ there.”

That song came out 23 years ago. In the past two decades Dylan has fired off at least two more critically acclaimed masterpieces (2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times), and a majestically deranged Christmas album, and another well-loved record (2012’s Tempest) that peaks with a nearly 14-minute tribute to the Titanic (and Leonardo DiCaprio), and a three-album exploration of the Great American Songbook so thorough that the third volume, 2017’s Triplicate, was itself a three-disc set. Plus he won the Nobel Prize, for literature. A few lines from Modern Times feel relevant here:

You think I’m over the hill
Think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whompin’ good time

My all-time favorite Dylan word is “whompin’.” On Rough and Rowdy Ways, your boy is 79 years old, and still swaggering even at his most haunted, and still eerily croaking lines like “The size of your cock’ll get you nowhere,” and still living—stubbornly, gloriously—in the present tense even when he’s rumbling through a 17-minute ballad about the JFK assassination.

“I’m just like Anne Frank / like Indiana Jones / And them British bad boys the Rolling Stones,” he boasts on opener “I Contain Multitudes,” a weightless, drumless lullaby whose title he rhymes with “I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds.” And “I drive fast cars, and I eat fast foods.” And “I’ll play Beethoven’s sonatas and Chopin’s preludes.” And “I paint landscapes and I paint nudes.” As to what Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, and the Rolling Stones have in common, Bob was pressed on this point in a recent lengthy New York Times Q&A, and as you might expect offered no concrete explanation, other than to note, of Indy, that “the John Williams score brought him to life.”

It’s better this way. Ask your questions, and revel in the joyous exasperation of not getting any straight answers. “You don’t know me darlin’,” he growls on “False Prophet,” the first of three strident blues jams. “You never would guess / I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest.” (Also: “I’m first among equals / Second to none / The last of the best / You can bury the rest.”) The guitar riff has a vaguely pornographic stomp to it; Bob sounds like a man simultaneously one-third and three times his age. It’s a whompin’ good time, though “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is the whompinest, a virile boast in part about Dylan’s epochal sense of restraint:

‘You won’t amount to much,’ the people all said
‘Cause I didn’t play guitar behind my head
Never pandered, never acted proud
Never took off my shoes, throw ‘em in the crowd

I find that last line hard to believe; Bob has played a whole lot of shows to a whole lot of apostates who deserved a sneaker or two to the head. But take his word for it even when he’s in one of his surrealist moods: “I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando,” he murmurs on the eerie shuffle “My Own Version of You.” “Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando.” He is the mad scientist Tom Waits warned us about, also 20-odd years ago: What’s he building in there?

Those of us still drawn to Straightforwardly Romantic Bob, to the Hallmark-card delights of fellow Time Out of Mind all-timer “Make You Feel My Love,” will gravitate toward the delicacy and vulnerability of “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” This is Dylan in his latter-day wheelhouse, the melody wistful but durable, the cooing backing vocals sentimental but insistent, the lyrics poetic but even more insistent:

Well, my heart’s like a river, a river that sings
Just takes me a while to realize things
I’ve seen the sunrise, I’ve seen the dawn
I’ll lay down beside you when everyone’s gone

There he goes again, boasting about outlasting everyone. You wanna bet against him? Or might it be him someday, watching your tour bus of the soul vanish into the horizon? “Murder Most Foul,” the shimmery and nearly sitcom-episode-length JFK tribute, was his first song to top a Billboard chart, an impressively overwhelming eulogy as party trick: It’s a guest list, and a playlist (“Play Art Pepper / Thelonious Monk / Charlie Parker and all that junk”), and yet another long look back that feels positively futuristic. The song feels like it could go on forever, and that goes double for the singer.

But even at his calmest, there is unease, there is restlessness, there is just a hint of orneriness. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is another soft ballad, the accordion purring, the guitar reverb luxurious, the Jimmy Buffett melancholy self-evident and nearly self-parodic from the song title on down. Mock its somnolence if you must: My 9-year-old son caught 10 seconds of it and asked if it was called “Dumped Lonely Man.”

But there is a boast inherent even to the gentle chorus of “Key West is the place to be / If you’re looking for immortality / Key West is paradise divine.” He knows he’s immortal; he’s got his feet up, and he’s watching the sun go down, but the sun won’t go down. His day—his work—is never done. There is a midnight-hour rowdiness to Rough and Rowdy Ways, but more importantly, well into his second half-century as an intensely private public deity, it’s clear that the darkness, whenever it finally comes, will be his to command.