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Rough and Rowdy Ways album review: Masterful Bob Dylan follows his tell-tale heart

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Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas party in London in December 1962 on his first visit to Britain. Photo: Brian Shuel/Redferns

Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas party in London in December 1962 on his first visit to Britain. Photo: Brian Shuel/Redferns

Bob in 2012 at The Hollywood Palladium. Photo: Chris Polk/Getty

Bob in 2012 at The Hollywood Palladium. Photo: Chris Polk/Getty

Dylan and Joan Baez during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington DC. Photo: Rowland Scherman.

Dylan and Joan Baez during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington DC. Photo: Rowland Scherman.

A more introspective Bob in 1966 in London - the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ tour. He also played Belfast (the ABC Theatre) and Dublin (the Adelphi Cinema) on this tour - Ireland’s first taste of Dylan

A more introspective Bob in 1966 in London - the ‘Royal Albert Hall’ tour. He also played Belfast (the ABC Theatre) and Dublin (the Adelphi Cinema) on this tour - Ireland’s first taste of Dylan

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Bob Dylan performing at the Singers Club Christmas party in London in December 1962 on his first visit to Britain. Photo: Brian Shuel/Redferns

Patti Smith once said that Bob Dylan had been the 19th-century French poet and libertine Rimbaud in a previous incarnation.

"I don't know if she's right or wrong," replied Dylan, "but Patti Smith, of course, knows a lot of deep details that I might not be aware of. She might be clued in to something that's a little beyond me.

"I know at least a dozen women who tell me they were the Queen of Sheba. And I know a few Napoleons and two Joan of Arcs and one Einstein…"

Be that as it may, on the master's 39th "epistle", as NME dubbed it - the LA Times called it a "savage pulp-noir masterpiece" - Dylan is invoking a long list of notables, among them Anne Frank, the Eagles, John F Kennedy, General George Patton, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther King, the Rolling Stones, Indiana Jones, Thelonious Monk, Patsy Cline, Edgar Allan Poe and William Blake.

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Bob in 2012 at The Hollywood Palladium. Photo: Chris Polk/Getty

Bob in 2012 at The Hollywood Palladium. Photo: Chris Polk/Getty

Bob in 2012 at The Hollywood Palladium. Photo: Chris Polk/Getty

He sings on I Contain Multitudes: "I sing the songs of experience like William Blake, I've got no apologies to make". In the same song, he sings: "I got a tell-tale heart like Mr Poe".

Fascinatingly, as far back as a 1985 interview with Spin magazine, the mercurial Mr Dylan noted: "If you can imagine something and you haven't experienced it, it's usually true that someone else has actually gone through it and will identify with it.

"I actually think about Poe's stories, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum. Certainly, if you look at his life, he really didn't experience any of that stuff".

Elsewhere, on Mother of Muses, the 79-year-old godhead of mystic truth admits in his Old Testament preacher-like croak: "I've already outlived my life by far."

And later on, this Zimmerman zinger: "I'll pick a number between one and two/And ask myself what would Julius Caesar do?"

Ask yourself what would Bob Dylan do in 2020 on his first album of original recordings since Tempest in 2002. The answer might be (primarily because no one knows what goes on inside the head of Bob Dylan, least of all, I imagine, Bob Dylan) an odyssey of revelatory, emotional complexity that shows Dylan warmer than on previous outings.

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Dylan and Joan Baez during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington DC. Photo: Rowland Scherman.

Dylan and Joan Baez during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington DC. Photo: Rowland Scherman.

Dylan and Joan Baez during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington DC. Photo: Rowland Scherman.

"Go home to your wife/Stop visiting mine," he sings mischievously on Black Rider, "One of these days I'll forget to be kind."

Compare this to the Idiot Wind venom of Soon After Midnight on Tempest: "When I met you, I didn't think you would do/It's soon after midnight, and I don't want nobody but you." (Or from Pay In Blood on Tempest: "I came to bury / Not to praise.")

Key West (Philosopher Pirate) has echoes of The Basement Tapes. My Own Version Of You conjures up I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine from the John Wesley Harding album of 1967. Goodbye Jimmy Reed ("They threw everything at me, everything in the book… they had no pity, they wouldn't lend a hand, I can't sing a song I don't understand") and False Prophet are both rollicking jumping blues.

At almost 17 minutes, Murder Most Foul is an elegy to JFK's ill-fated day in Dallas. Given this album was written, I think, last year, any fantasies that Dylan might have redrawn The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll in honour of George Floyd are not realised - this time around.

"I'll drink to the man that shares your bed," he sings on I Contain Multitudes.

Rough And Rowdy Ways is a menage a trois of tragedy, comedy and mortality. There's one last great album in him down on Desolation Row, too.

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