- 01 Jul 20
There was a time when major album releases were something we looked forward to as an event, with a sense that the best of them might just tilt the world a little bit further on its axis. And, on occasion, that feeling was vindicated when the Event Album was finally released. That feeling of unfettered anticipation has been missing for a long time – that is, until Rough and Rowdy Ways by Bob Dylan was released a few weeks ago.
Record releases were major social and artistic events before I left Ireland in 1967, and they continued to be so for the next decade or so. In the beginning, it might have been more to do with having to save up the thirty-two shillings and sixpence required for such a purchase than anything else. Later, of course, they became massively celebrated cultural events.
Take for example the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band. Ditto, its UK predecessors Rubber Soul and Revolver and its UK follow-up LP, The Beatles (aka The White Album) and their penultimate opus, Abbey Road. In fact, every album released by The Beatles became the scene-stopping happening of the era.
Sometimes the anticipation would be close to unbearable, like with Van Morrison’s Moondance, the follow up to his critically acclaimed masterpiece, Astral Weeks; or Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, wherein he turned the whole genre of singers who wrote their own songs, totally on its head.
The list continues: with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds; John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan’s first post motorcycle accident release; Crosby, Stills and Nash’s eponymous debut; Leonard Cohen’s Songs From a Room, the follow-up to his ground breaking debut, The Songs of Leonard Cohen; Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water; Otis Redding’s Otis Blue; Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, which seemed to take forever and a day to hit the racks; Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms; Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd; The Traveling Wilburys Volume I; Paul Simon’s Graceland; The Joshua Tree by U2; Gerry Rafferty’s City to City, which was perfectly heralded by the classic single ‘Baker Street’. In short, everyone knew, more or less, that all of these albums were going to be successful, whether critically or commercially – or indeed both – long before their release date.
In my personal bubble, I’d also be counting Taste’s first album, called simply, Taste; Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure (they were so incredible live I couldn’t wait for their first album: obviously I had to, since there was no alternative, bar a quick visit to the legendary crossroad); The Undertones self-titled debut; The Buzzcocks’ Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Genesis (with Peter Gabriel)’s Foxtrot. There were, of course, other event-albums from artists like David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin etc., etc., though these were not on my radar bar a listen or two.
Artistically speaking, it helped that many of the artists of that era were spurring each other on. Brian Wilson was so inspired on hearing Rubber Soul, that he went off and wrote and recorded Pet Sounds with ‘God Only Knows' and ‘Good Vibrations’; which, in turn, was a wake-up call to The Beatles, motivating them to deliver Sgt. Pepper’s the following year.
It was what they call a virtuous circle. Well, musically speaking...
FIRST ALBUM OF NEW MATERIAL
Before the worldwide web existed, the build-up to album releases was built mostly around press announcements, paid press advertising and the word-of-mouth from advance reviews, all of which made it impossible for fans, and non-fans alike, to be unaware of a forthcoming release. The unbearable countdown was sign-posted by sneak preview airplay, a bit of telly and lots of chatter, to the extent that by the time the album was released, the world had cranked itself up to fever-pitch. Radio shows would be tripping over themselves to secure an exclusive. In the case of The Beatles, the stations took to playing the albums in their entirety (and yes, including the Beatles double white album) in the weeks prior to release.
Radio stations had much more impact then. Since there were but a few of them, they each consequently reached a much bigger audience. In that less profligate era, the better albums didn’t fade away after a couple of weeks, but hung around the higher regions of the charts for something like six to twelve months. A few even managed multiple years in the charts and, in fact, Sgt. Pepper’s and Abbey Road continue to sell impressive numbers over fifty years later. The latter even managed to return to the top of the charts last year.
That was all many decades ago and event-albums don’t happen anymore, or do they?
Well, I can think of one.
Out of the blue, Bob Dylan dropped a new track on the internet and radio, on March 27 this year. This streaming-services format of releasing new music is the new normal. But the song 'Murder Most Foul’ was different, very different.
Then again, Dylan has always been different, unique even. He is one of those rare artists, whose current songs can stand up proudly alongside any of the songs from his earlier albums, a major feat when you consider that this is his 39th album. His first outing, entitled Bob Dylan, was released in 1962. That’s all of 58 years ago.
Would a Bob Dylan type of artist get a record deal today? It’s a good question. I mean, if he had the same song-writing skills and music, and someone was shopping for a deal for him as an unknown, what would the chances of success be? The simple answer is that he wouldn’t. In fact, his representatives wouldn’t even get a meeting, unless he, the artist, was socially followed in the billions; prepared to do all the self-promoting; didn’t need an advance; and would give up a share of his publishing, merchandising and touring. If he had all of that going for him, then maybe, just maybe, he’d get a deal. Sadly, that is pretty close to the reality for emerging artists in 2020.
After ‘Murder Most Foul’ caused a major stir and shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard chart, Dylan released a second song, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, in the same manner. And this was followed, in May, by a third, ‘False Prophet’.
Then the word filtered out that Bob Dylan would release Rough and Rowdy Ways on 19 June 2020. This would be his first album of new material since 2012’s Tempest.
Three strategically released songs in, it became clear that Rough and Rowdy Ways – named after a single released by Jimmie Rodgers in 1929 – was guaranteed to be a No. 1 in the charts. So it proved in the UK and Ireland. And it went straight in at No.2 in the US.
The event-album was back!
PERFECT STORY-TELLING VOICE
The reviews for Rough and Rowdy Ways have universally been five-star, heralding the work as one of Dylan’s best. Which is saying something. The (London) Times even carried their review in the news pages as opposed to the Arts Section. Uncut Magazine gave the album a six-page review. I had never seen them, or anyone else, do this before.
Which takes us nicely to last Friday, when the man from Amazon popped my copy of Rough and Rowdy Ways through the letter box.
The opener, 'I Contain Multitudes', breezed in from absolutely nowhere. It’s a perfectly recorded song. You feel Dylan is right there, in your room, telling you his new set of stories. His musicians perfectly compliment the song, never for one second competing with the singer.
“I’ll sing the songs of experience/ Just like William Blake/ I’ve no apologies to make,” Dylan offers as we settle in.
“I’m like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones, and those British bad boys, The Rolling Stones,” he sings, in a perfect story-telling voice, which has never sounded so good.
“I’ll drink to the man who shares your bed," he confesses, a line I couldn’t get out of my head even after the end of the song.
Next up is 'False Prophet', a bar-room stomp with gentle hints of John Lee Hooker. Dylan and his band (Bob Dylan – vocals and guitar; Charlie Sexton – guitar; Bob Britt – guitar; Donnie Herron – steel guitar, violin and accordion; Tony Garnier – bass, and, Matt Chamberlain – drums) make this song sound like they’ve been road-testing it for twenty years before eventually cutting it. It sounds like they take so much joy from playing together. This quality is highly infectious.
It was here that I started to remember another by-product of the event-album syndrome. This might only be me, but when I’m listening to a new album I've been incredibly keen to hear – on occasion quite literally counting the sleeps to release day – some of the first-play is spent thinking about the previous track or even wondering what the next track will sound like. In the case of Rough and Rowdy Ways, it took a few listens to put all this behind me and live right in the moment of this truly wondrous, rich sound. A great album is like a good friend – and you never make a good friend on your first meeting.
'My Own Version of You' is smooth and very satisfying, with the band playing barely above a whisper.
Next up is 'I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You’. By the second time I played it, I felt like I’d known this song all my life. “I’ll be saved by the Preacher I predate,” he sings, and I wonder if he’s addressing the same person from the opening song, 'I Contain Multitudes'.
'Black Rider' has the band back to playing at a whisper again, the melody set up chord by single chord, rather than flowing. The voice, as ever, is the focus holding it all together.
'Goodbye Jimmy Reed' cranks it back up again. It's a homage – a walking blues, by way of 'Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat', that you never want to end.
'Mother of All Muses' is perhaps an ode to his maker, acknowledging all the gifts Dylan has been given. “I’m travelling light,” he sings, "and I’m slowly coming home.” I am reminded of those great lines from 'Not Dead Yet' (Time Out of Mind - 1997): “I was born here, and I’ll die here, against my will.”
'Crossing The Rubicon', the eight song, is a bit like Buddy Guy slowed up as the electricity meter runs out, replete with another amazing vocal performance.
Final track on disc one is 'Key West (Philosopher Pirate)' which gently breezes in, the musicians allowing the song to breathe. I’ll say it again: the voice he has spent all these years growing into, is now the perfect story-telling voice. You can clearly hear each and every word and so not a single syllable is wasted in either the writing or the delivery.
PRESSING THE REPEAT BUTTON
The first few dozen times I listened to 'Murder Most Foul' on YouTube (I believe it’s over 5,000,000 plays and counting so far, across all platforms) I was worried that this album could turn out to be a support system for this one, monumental song. That anxiety has proven to be totally unfounded. There is no padding here, no passenger song, no poorer cousin, call them what you will.
Every single song earns its place with pride. The work is like the perfectly thought-out show, with several peaks and lighter (necessary) shades before the dramatic pay-off. The production sounds perfect in that this album has not been produced; it has been recorded. The performance is the essence of the production.
The final act, 'Murder Most Foul', at 16 minutes and 59 seconds takes up all of disc 2. It is vivid, dramatic, scary, tragic, sad and out-Shakespeare’s William Shakespeare. In centuries to come, this will be the go-to document for the times and crimes of the 20th Century. It is, to me, one of the factual works of modern times and of Dylan’s career.
It’s about the 1960s; artists; bands; music; the Kennedys; Vietnam; injustice; civil rights; the Beatles; America; causes; politics, and… about corruption. This is the kind of ultimate corruption where all the baddies bought themselves white hats. If someone had shouted out, “He’s behind you,” even JFK would (and did) ignore the pantomime call and never for a second would he glance back as he concentrated on the road towards Dealey Plaza and waving to the crowds.
Set against a hypnotic, sensitive, ambient, piano-violin-percussion led backdrop, Dylan recalls his take on the Crime of The Century. “Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung,” he sings as he does. It’s factual, but so far-fetched you are tempted to treat it as fiction.
As a piece, this works very successfully, in the way that both Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood worked. You might think that 'Murder Most Foul' should be a book. In fact, it is a book, a mighty book – only this particular troubadour forsook the page for the stage. It sounds like the Judgement Day address before the final sentencing. When the song concludes you are left in shock. No matter how many times you hear 'Murder Most Foul', you will feel stunned. You will feel like you need some time alone. Or that’s been my experience.
Rough and Rowdy Ways is probably the event-album to end all event-albums. I pray there is a new wave of music and musicians who can reach for the sky but not just to surrender. In the meantime, I have a new and welcome addition to the event-albums section in my collection. That's the section where you wear out the repeat button.
Now where did I put the number for that hi-fi repair man?