Rough and Rowdy Ways is Bob Dylan’s best album in many years, and its lyrics are endlessly quotable.
Bob Dylan’s last truly great album was 1997’s Time Out of Mind. He didn’t lose control of the wheel on his next four albums of original material – both Love & Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006) showed up in many a year-end list – but these records failed to exert the mind-shifting impact of Dylan’s earlier work.
Rough and Rowdy Ways, however, will go down as one of Dylan’s best. His voice hasn’t sounded this good in years; the production and musicality are tasteful and entirely in service of the songs; and Dylan’s songwriting is remarkably consistent.
This includes the lyrics, which are the nexus of the album’s brilliance. So here’s a closer look at the best lines from each of Rough and Rowdy Ways‘ ten tracks.
1. ‘I Contain Multitudes’
Dylan begins the album by borrowing a line from Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” The song’s as much a meditation on individual complexity as it is a reflection on one’s ultimate powerlessness in the face of mortality. Best lyrics:
“Today and tomorrow and yesterday, too / The flowers are dying like all things do.”
“What more can I tell you? I sleep with life and death in the same bed.”
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2. ‘False Prophet’
This song rocks. Seriously – it’s everything blues rock revivalists like the White Stripes and the Black Keys were aiming at back in the early aughts. Dylan sounds proud of what he’s achieved, and why shouldn’t he be? Best lyrics:
“I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life.”
“I ain’t no false prophet – I’m nobody’s bride / Can’t remember when I was born and I forgot when I died.”
3. ‘My Own Version of You’
This song would be genuinely laugh out loud funny were it not so grotesque. It has a vaudevillian feel, recalling much of Love and Theft and 2012’s Tempest. References to pop culture and Western intelligentsia abound. Best lyrics:
“I’ll take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando / Mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando.”
“Step right into the burning hell / Where some of the best-known enemies of mankind dwell / Mr. Freud with his dreams, Mr. Marx with his axe.”
4. ‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’
‘I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You’ is as true a love song as you’re ever likely to find. The narrator isn’t overcome with fevered romance (as the title would suggest), but the lyrics underline how commitment is a choice. Best lyrics:
“I’m giving myself to you, I am / From Salt Lake City to Birmingham / From East L.A. to San Antone / I don’t think I could bear to live my life alone.”
“If I had the wings of a snow white dove / I’d preach the gospel, the gospel of love / A love so real, a love so true / I’ve made up my mind to give myself to you.”
5. ‘Black Rider’
‘Black Rider’ features the album’s sparest arrangement, but each time the musical backing fades to a whisper, the gravity of Dylan’s vocal sinks in. The titular black rider could be the grim reaper theirself, who Dylan addresses with a mixture of foreboding and scorn. Best lyrics:
“The road that you’re on, same road that you know / Just not the same as it was a minute ago.”
“I’m walking away, you try to make me look back / My heart is at rest, I’d like to keep it that way / I don’t want to fight, at least not today.”
6. ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’
The 12-bar blues structure owes obvious debt to Mississippi guitarist Jimmy Reed, but the lyrics of ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’ examine a variety of Dylan’s achievements and ongoing gripes. Best lyrics:
“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, threw ’em into the crowd.”
“They threw everything at me, everything in the book / I had nothing to fight with but a butcher’s hook / They had no pity, they never lend a hand / I can’t sing a song that I don’t understand.”
7. ‘Mother of Muses’
‘Mother of Muses’ sounds like the sort of Tin Pan Alley pop music that preceded rock’n’roll. Dylan addresses the mother of muses to ask for further inspiration, but also acknowledge how well she’s served him over the past six decades. Best lyrics:
“Mother of muses, wherever you are / I’ve already outlived my life by far.”
“Show me your wisdom, tell me my fate / Put me upright, make me walk straight / Forge my identity from the inside out.“
8. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’
To cross the Rubicon is to go past the point of no return, which often means making great sacrifices. Here Dylan describes the sort of cold-hearted tenacity that’s needed to make it to the top. Best lyrics:
“I can feel the bones beneath my skin and they’re trembling with rage / I’ll make your wife a widow, you’ll never see old age.”
“I feel the holy spirit inside, see the light that freedom gives / I believe it’s in reach of every man who lives / Keep as far away as possible – it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn.”
9. ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’
‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ is a beautiful, unhurried ending to disc one of Rough and Rowdy Ways. Again, Dylan reflects on what’s made him into the culturally significant figure he is today, paying respect to his forebears and contemporaries.
“I’m searching for learning, for inspiration / On that pirate radio station coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest / Radio signal, clear as can be / I’m so deep in love, but I can hardly see.”
“I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track / Like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac.”
10. ‘Murder Most Foul’
‘Murder Most Foul’ runs for 17 minutes and contains nearly 1500 words. And yet, you’re almost oblivious to the passing of time while it plays out. It’s over too soon; you’re desperate to remain in its world a little longer. Really, we could quote the whole dang thing.
“The day that they blew out the brains of the king / Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing / It happened so quickly – so quick by surprise / Right there in front of everyone’s eyes.”
“The day that they killed him, someone said to me / ‘Son, the age of the Antichrist has just only begun.’”