From the moment the needle drops on Rough and Rowdy Ways, we feel that old Dylan gravity envelop us more than it has on any Bob Dylan album in years. We hang on every word, the rasp in his unmistakable voice deployed with articulate, expressive perfection as he spins a tangled poetic web of history, fantasy, and hard reality. Among other things, Dylan has always been interested in death, and here death hangs like a spectral presence over everything, sometimes an old friend, sometimes a potent nemesis. There's a "Ballad of a Thin Man" quality to a lot of the songs here, which flow together so that the album at times resembles one epic poem made of many disparate parts, like one of the science experiments he describes on "My Own Version of You." The lyrics balance stream-of-consciousness absurdity and everything-in-its-right-place grand design with a grace and humor worthy of the greatest living American songwriter. It all comes together on album closer "Murder Most Foul," an epic about the JFK assassination that finds Dylan returning to the primal scene of the '60s, the decade that birthed his career and rock and roll as an idiom and much of the modern popular culture that we're still sifting through and feeling the effects of today. Rough and Rowdy Ways is an album freighted by history, by a historical institution in himself, and it's in every way worthy of his singular status in American music.
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