Bob Dylan's Timeless Music

In 2020, Rough And Rowdy Ways, the latest album of the legendary Bob Dylan was released. Up to this point, his music career has spanned nearly 6 decades, an unbelievably long time for a musical profession. When we suddenly realize that he is now in his 80s, when most people have retired a long time ago, we suddenly wonder about such an old artist - especially with such a towering monument. Bob Dylan - what's new to bring to listeners?

For most ordinary music listeners, when analyzing his career, you will find many times when the music is just average, and it is difficult to imagine Bob's musical breadth enough to understand why the his music is so great.

It was also my own difficulty when I approached Dylan's music, especially in the period before 1965, when he was only holding an acoustic guitar and interjecting his solo with a slightly jarring harmonica.

Bob Dylan

His voice was hoarse and weak, slurred like a drunkard, with no clarity of words. That song was also not humming, lacking emotion and at times like reading lyrics. The drum guitar just "strumming" monotonously repeated the whole song, it's even longer. Sometimes up to 6-7 minutes with just a few chords and a constant melody did not change. When I listened to the CD The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), even to the song "Down The Highway", I was startled because the man's strings were not fully aligned, every time the strings were spread, the strings sounded "out"..

Along with the harmonica, Bob Dylan seemed to know how to add color to his music, but it seemed that the way of blowing was similar to his careless singing style, and seemingly lacking in emotion.

It is said that the best of Bob Dylan's music lied in its intelligent, profound and meaningful lyrics. And then the musical atmosphere that he accurately recreated in the 60s at that time through the folk music genre was what touched the emotions of the listeners, most of whom were born and raised in that period. They understood and appreciated the special magic of Dylan's music.

Bob Dylan

In my opinion, these plus points in his music were therefore not easy to fully appreciate for most Vietnamese, especially those who were born and raised in later generations and in a country with a foreign language and different cultures. A closer approach was perhaps from the careful dissection of word by sentence to appreciate the beauty in the lyrics, which led him to the first prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature for a musician.

Here you go!. If you listen to Dylan's music in reverse chronological order without going too far, just from mid-60s albums like Bring It All Back Home (1965) or Highway 61 Revisited (1965) , you can soak up the essence of his music like my love songs, like "Ballad Of A Thin Man" for example. Then when he started putting in a more "easy to hear " Blues Rock sound with the same band, things became much easier when he went back to the early days when he sang folk music, with only the barrel and harmonica. We will have to say “Your music is so good and beautiful!”.

Bob Dylan

These were "Girl From The North Country", "Masters Of War" and of course "Blowin' In The Wind" from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963), or "Ballad Of Hollis Brown", "One Too Many Mornings" , "North Country Blues" in The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964), etc.

The pieces from many of those times when rearranged suddenly sketched out pictures depicting each period throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s until the first year of this new 2020 decade.

Back with Bob Dylan's latest disc, Rough And Rowdy Ways (2020), I had no expectations before listening to it. Yet surprisingly, at the age of 79, Bob Dylan turned out to still have the energy to compose a more perfect album than ever. The whole album has been a journey to bring listeners back to the old emotions that his music has brought to each period.

The opening song "I Contain Multitudes" had a very basic harmony when it focused only the bass guitar and Dylan's slow voice. That space brought listeners back to his early days of playing Folk music, which was not colorful and fussy, but still created atmosphere through the soft sound of some instruments. On this track, the new thing that Dylan added was a steel guitar sound and a little cello to create bass. But there wasn't a single beat of the drums. It was still the same Dylan- an artist who told stories through poetic ideas:

“You greedy old wolf, I'll show you my heart / But not all of it, only the hateful part / I'll sell you down the river, I'll put a price on your head / What more can I tell you ? / I sleep with life and death in the same bed”

An opening track that symbolized Dylan's glory days and his life-and-death images for an older man like him, seemed to be a hint at the theme of the album.

Bob Dylan

The next song "False Prophet" pulled listeners right into the era when Dylan introduced the electric guitar and the band into his music. Remembering when Dylan first started using the electric guitar on the album Bringing It All Back Home (1965), he had to carefully divide it into two halves, in which the second half were lengthy tracks consisting only of acoustic so as not to shock music fans. My longtime folk which was yet from the time he performed in the US in 1965 until the following year in Europe, the reaction Dylan received was a booing sound every time the band and electric guitar appeared - Dylan's Folk music fans considered it. That change was an act of betrayal to the music. However, audiences did not realize that that album and Highway 61 Revisited (1965), with its innovative sound of electric guitar, then inspired Rock N Roll music for generations of great artists later. So in the song "False Prophet" there was a line:

“I'm first among equals / Second to none / The last of the best / You can bury the rest / Bury 'em naked with their silver and gold / Put them six feet under and pray for their souls”

The 79-year-old man's words were still the same, still with a confident attitude with a bit of irony like when he responded to the objections of his Folk music fans "They can boo until the end of the show, because I know the music I'm playing is real music."

Bob Dylan

To the song "My Own Version Of You", listeners could continue the musical journey to the 70s of Dylan, still using the band playing in the background but without the hoarse sound of the electric guitar as master religion. Then “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” with backing vocals reminiscent of the time when Dylan put it on Street Legal (1978), not so Gospel but changing the color of the song. His music was still the same, it was still a long repetitive song structure but the melody was extremely attractive. Listening to it over and over again was not boring.

The imperfections in Bob Dylan's music were still presented in this new album. Like the track "Black Rider", the guitar was not pressed tightly to reveal the noise, or at 2:43 in "Mother Of Muses" the sound was blurred but he still left it in the song. From the beginning of his musical pursuits until now, Dylan has always deliberately left "errors" in his music to enhance the "soul" - which played a role in his stories. It was in a space created with unique instruments and vocals.

In this Rough And Rowdy Ways disc, the atmosphere of a legend in the near and far age permeated the whole album, which was most prominent in the "Black Rider" version.

Only the sound of an acoustic guitar and a bass like the album Blood On The Tracks (1975), Bob Dylan's voice spoke to Death:

“Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black / 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 wanna fight, at least not today / Go home to your wife, stop visiting mine / One of these days, I'll forget to be kind”.

Bob Dylan

Even in the face of Death, his jovial personality remained in him:

“Black rider, black rider, hold it right there / The size of your cock will get you nowhere / I'll suffer in silence, I'll not make a sound /Maybe I'll take the high moral ground"

As for "Mother Of Muses", on the guitar and cello there was music reminiscent of the slow tracks in Dylan's Oh Mercy (1989), his lyrics were gentle, serene with satisfaction with life:

“Take me to the river, release your charms / Let me lay down a while in your sweet, loving arms / Wake me, shake me, free me from sin / Make me invisible, like the wind / Got a mind that ramble, got a mind that roam / I'm travelin' light and I'm a-slow coming home".

Bob Dylan's voice on this album, especially in this very "Mother Of Muses" song was suddenly better than ever. How can an old man in his 80s be able to drop high notes lightly when all his life, Dylan has mostly sung in a hoarse voice?

Is it possible that all defects in his music have been chosen by him as his own artistic direction? There are delicate people who have always recognized the beauty in his music for a long time, but I regretted that it was not until this album that I got a comprehensive view.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan has previously shared that he considered the tracks he recorded on discs only as demos  because he needed time to understand and perfect them better with each performance. But for me, Rough And Rowdy Ways has been a finished work. I feel like a lifetime's experience has helped Bob Dylan compose a life-changing work in a way that's completely uncompromising.

And if you look more deeply at his career, after the heyday of the 60s, Bob Dylan still created the mark of each decade with masterpieces such as Blood On The Tracks (1975), Oh Mercy (1989) ), Time Out Of Mind (1997), etc and now Rough And Rowdy Ways. Somewhere, there were new things he has done like adding electric guitars, backing vocals, violin and cello strings, or accordion sounds; but never too many things crammed together. Then, in the end, there was still the mark of an unchanged Dylan: simple music, deep lyrics and beautifulmelodies, not fussy but never boring.

A true ageless music. A timeless art genre!