I have to say up front that I was wary going into this album. I've enjoyed Dylan's work for decades but, the more I hear it, the more I find I prefer his earlier work. The Times They are a-Changin' is one of my top ten albums of all time, not because of how catchy the title track is but because of how deep that album goes. Now, I'm no folk purist. I love electric Dylan too and Hurricane plays in my head at all sorts of random moments. I haven't enjoyed the deterioration of his voice over the years, though, and I haven't found myself grabbed by more recent albums.
And, on my first time through this one, his 39th studio album and his first made up of original material in eight years, I wasn't grabbed at all. It's a quintessentially laid back Dylan album, False Prophet notwithstanding. It's easily the most laid back I've ever heard him, about as far from rough and rowdy as it gets, and it was offputting. I lost a few songs in the middle of the album because I just tuned out.
Sure, it's laid back (I've Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You is so laid back it's almost horizontal) and the music is emphatically a backdrop to his lyrics and, rather surprisingly for me, his vocal delivery, which was much more intonated than I expected. It's varied in style but almost deliberately inoffensive so we never actually lose a focus on the words. If we heard this as instrumentals, it would be safer than your average soft jazz album.
However, some of it comes from a less ambitious structure to songwriting. I caught plenty of cleverness in the lyrics, as we might fairly expect from a poet who has become a Nobel laureate. However, each sentence seems delivered in short and easily digestable chunks for a modern ADHD audience and some of the rhymes are cheap and scan awkwardly, right from the opening lines of the opening song, I Contain Multitudes.
But I kept listening, perhaps spurred into attention by the two long songs that wrap up the album, Key West (Philosopher Pirate) and Murder Most Foul. Every listen saw the album burrow deeper into my brain. Those songs close to the heart of the album started to grab my attention. Songs that seemed to be overly simple started to find serious depths. And I started to realise just how good this album is. It's just Dylan reinventing himself yet again, at 79 years young and almost 60 years into his recording career.
There's something of a growl on False Prophet, the most in your face song on this album, and it almost finds a Tom Waits vibe, albeit not so avant-garde. Mother of Muses reminds of Leonard Cohen. But most of this is quintessential Dylan, just in a different form. It's introspective and personal. It takes a long look at how American culture has moved forward, phrased in unusual ways like Murder Most Foul being a sort of ongoing wake for JFK in the form of a string of musical requests for Wolfman Jack to play on the radio. It's hard not to see it as Dylan's American Pie; it's just as cryptic but it's a lot deeper. Even the album title is a riff on Jimmie Rodgers.
That song is almost seventeen minutes long, dwarfing Key West's skimpy nine and a half, but they're quiet but quietly commanding and they contain a heck of a lot to unpack. Suddenly we realise just how much Dylan was sifting his way through American history through its music on songs like Goodbye Jimmy Reed and Mother of Muses. There are themes here, woven throughout the album, and it takes a little while to realise just how clever that is. Dylan plays with our attention spans on songs like I Contain Multitudes, but suckers us into consuming a heck of a lot more than we think we did.
This isn't a short album, running over fifty minutes even without that long final song that comes on its own disc. I'm half a dozen listens through and I'm still finding new things every single time. The Dylan of 1962 is in here waiting to be found when we look for him but he's inside the Dylan of 2020, who's an older, wiser and far more patient voice of reason in a crazy world. It's timeless but also very timely indeed.