In the winter of 1965, Bob Dylan gave a rare press conference in San Francisco. He deflected, he joked, he evaded. If there was a verb for mischievous, he did that too. What’s your new album about, Bob? “Oh, it’s about, uh – just about all kinds of different things – rats, balloons.”
When the reporters grew tired of shooting bullets at Superman, one of them threw the gun, asking the imp a silly question: “Do you have a rhyme for orange?”
“What? I didn’t hear that,” he replied. Moving on, someone asked about Dylan about being censored on The Ed Sullivan Show. His answer, “I’ll tell you the rhyme in a minute.”
So it went. No one got any real answers that day, not even Mr. Jones. In the years since, Dylan consistently puzzled, winked, contradicted and shut his mouth, Even when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, all he had to say was that he was “truly beyond words.” Like a burp from the guy who just won the hot-dog eating contest.
That’s all changed now. Last week the press-shy musician gave an interview to The New York Times, in which proper replies were given. “The song is like a painting,” he said, for instance. “You can’t see it all at once if you’re standing too close.”
Isn’t that the truth.
Dylan, 79, gave the interview on the occasion of his gorgeous new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, his first package of new songs since 2012′s The Tempest. It’s an eloquent and often elegant recording, with plucked strings, rough croons and poetic reflections. Elsewhere, electric blues stomp convincingly. Death seems near – more than one reference is made to the St. Louis Jimmy Oden song Goin’ Down Slow.
And, get this, Dylan explains himself: “I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes/I contain multitudes.”
Those lyrics are from I Contain Multitudes, a fluttering, cinematic album opener of excellent rhymes, with a refrain that riffs off a Walt Whitman quote. It’s a telling self-portrait.
Dylan sings that he “cannot frolic with all the young dudes” and that he “sleeps with life and death in the same bed.” If it sounds like a dreamy outro, Dylan disputes that the lyrics are necessarily about his own mortality. “I think about the death of the human race, the long strange trip of the naked ape,” he said in the Times interview. “I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
The first-person revelations continue, though, with the swaggering, boasting Chicago blues number False Prophet. Here, Dylan answers some of the questions he never bothered answering before: “I opened my heart to the world and the world came in. ... I ain’t no false prophet, I just said what I said.”
A nicotine fiend, Dylan’s voice is shot – Tom Waits is Norah Jones in comparison. But the black-lunged man knows how to sing. The waltzing noir ballad My Own Version of You finds Dylan succeeding in a rakish croak.
I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You is a love song of the late-era Elvis kind. I believe Dylan is talking about his incessant touring and the comfort found in an audience: “From East L.A. to San Antone, I don’t think I can bear to live my life alone.”
The Florida Commission on Tourism will be pleased with Key West (Philosopher Pirate), an accordion-dappled salute to outlaw radio and America’s sunny end of the road. On Black Rider, the Grim Reaper is mocked. The slow-coming hymn Mother of Muses eccentrically connects the dots between General Patton, Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr.
The album ends with Murder Most Foul, a somber 17-minute ramble arranged for cello and piano about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Lee Harvey Oswald himself would smile when Dylan quips, “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline.”
Since the release of Murder Most Foul as a single in March, many have guessed about its meaning. This week, the mystery of who plays piano on the track was a subject of social media speculation. Is it Alan Pasqua? Benmont Tench? Fiona Apple? All are credited as “additional musicians” in the album’s liner notes.
Who knows, maybe Dylan himself is on the black and whites. A question unanswered. And on an album with more rhyming couplets than a Shakespeare convention, Dylan fails to find a match for “orange.”
Once again, he keeps us hanging. We’ll wait.
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