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The eternal relevance of Dylan’s mind

| Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer
Summer can stink of minimum wage, screaming politicians, the watchful eyes of authority in the form of parents and the constant hum of artists fighting to stay relevant in an unmerciful world. After listening to music influenced by Bob Dylan’s form, style and creativity for eight years, it was refreshing to hear new original music from him this summer — a welcome break from the rut of quarantine life.

The release of his double album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (well, one album and the 17 minute single “Murder Most Foul”) proves that Dylan — “the guy who influenced the Beatles,” as G.E. Smith put it has remained immune to irrelevance. Celebrating his 79th birthday and releasing his 39th studio album in the same year, that Dylan’s music still tops the charts only affirms its ability to effortlessly worm its way into the human experience.

The Genius lyrics pages are still firing, with contributors analyzing his work even as we creep into fall academics — and with good reason. This is Dylan’s first album (and public interview) since he officially burst into the world of literature by winning the Nobel Peace Prize of Literature in 2016, and it was met with great expectation. There is no need to spend much time speaking on Dylan’s lyricism or use of simple melodies that are drawn from rock, folk and blues traditions alike, because these subjects are well discussed by much better writers than I.

Like all Dylan records, the album exists between lives, giving it the prophetic eeriness for which he is well known. This duality of timelines is also seen through the album cover , which includes a colorized photo from 1964 of a couple dancing. Here, and throughout the album itself, Dylan uses location and imagery to separate the listener from time. Dylan’s personas stay elusive as he simultaneously depicts himself as the young poet racing towards death and the old man sitting on his porch and reminiscing about life. His lyrics drip of nostalgia for the very moments which voice is currently experiencing, with Dylan using them to create a new timeline where only the listener and the music exist. 

Dylan continues to use his old bag of tricks, offering comfort in a world that seems to be returning, at least politically, to the turbulent times during which he first rose in popularity. His refusal to create a persona or accept the personas that the world gives him shows through with his elusive narration. He also embraces the framing of his work as literature, increasing the amount of literary, classical and religious references in his songs. Every song connects to preexisting art in some way, putting him in communication with the cannon of human creation.

Some of the most striking examples are “I Contain Multitudes,” which directly reference writers such as Ann Frank, Edgar Allen Poe and Walt Whitman. Whitman’s interpretation of America directly influenced Dylan’s own literary heroes — the Beat poets of the 50s — who he references by name in “Key West (Philosopher Poet)”. His song “My Own Version of You” relies on a vague understanding of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” while “Mother of Muses” evokes antiquity.

This album has heavy blues ballads that highlight the rustic, dirty voice age has given him, but it also contains moments sincerity. The phenomena of space, heartache and longing reappear for the first time since “Time out of Mind” (1997). He reestablishes his mastering of emotional ballads in “I’ve Made up My Mind to Give Myself to You.” While a young Dylan reflected on death, an older Dylan reflects on life. He speaks on the immortality of art and music in “Key West” and “Murder Most Foul,” possibly trying to convince himself of the internal relevance that the press has promised him all these years. But even if Dylan’s not convinced of his relevance, I certainly am. 

Artist: Bob Dylan

Album: “Rough and Rowdy Ways”

Label: Columbia Records

Favorite Tracks: “Key Wast (Philosopher Poet)” and “I’ve Made up My Mind to Give Myself to You”

If you like: The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Lana Del Rey

Shamrocks: 5 out of 5

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