Why Dylan’s “Rough and Rowdy Ways” Deserves To Exist

Numerous times during this pandemic, I’ve seen some people put forth the idea that it would be best to let the virus run its course, infect us all, and bugger the consequences. Sure, some older and more vulnerable people might die, but at least the economy will be OK, and we’ll all still be in work.

It is, of course, a stupid idea. Not only does it ignore the economic consequences of allowing so many people to die (which many economists have calculated would be worse than the lock-down itself) but it ignores the cultural implications of letting the virus doom the boomers.

Bob Dylan’s new album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, is a case in point.

To say it’s his best album in years is possibly a little unfair. Late-career Dylan is full of highlights, from the bluesy-majestic sounds of Modern Times and Tempest to his trilogy of jazz standard albums, Dylan has been delivering music of consistent quality and authority.

But there’s something different about Rough and Rowdy Ways. There’s an emotional vulnerability to his new album that I’d argue has been missing for most of his career. It really feels like Dylan is speaking directly to you through these songs, rather than painting distant allegories with metaphor and dreamlike imagery.

There’s still some of that going on in Rough and Rowdy Ways, but he’s using his poetry differently, filling it with pop-cultural references that read like one man’s personal biography. Sure, some of his lyrics aren’t as “woke” as some people might want from a songwriter in 2020, but the guy’s 79; give him a break. But the music is sublime. In fact, I think it may very well be the most musically sophisticated album Dylan has ever released.

Look. Musical taste is very subjective. But having listened to Rough and Rowdy Ways a few times now, I know my life would be the poorer for not having it in my collection. Sure, it’s just an album of popular music, and I know there are more important things to worry about. But my point still stands; the idea that older people are past their best and incapable of delivery something of value is just a stupid, stupid idea.

And it’s not just Dylan. People like David Bowie, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson, Roger Waters, and Neil Young have all released some of their best work as late-career artists.

And it’s not just music, of course. Many authors and poets and painters have produced their best work later in life. And I’m sure there are examples of older people delivering lifetime bests in other vocations as well.

So don’t give me all this bullshite about sacrificing the old to save the young. Everyone has the capacity to be of value to our world, no matter their age or gender or race. We’re all in this together. 

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