Mutiny against mortality

Bob Dylan’s latest album is an elegy to transience

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In 49 BCE, renowned general Julius Caesar faced a tough choice. He was camped on the banks of the Rubicon in Gaul (now France); if he crossed it along with his 13th legion into Rome, that spelled an act of war. A decision from which there was no coming back. The widely popular idiom ‘cross the Rubicon’—meaning a step that cannot be reversed—originates from that snippet of history. In Bob Dylan’s latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, the legendary folk singer and reluctant laureate of the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature dedicates a song to ‘Crossing the Rubicon’. It is easy to imagine Dylanologists in high academia adjusting their monocles and declaring the song a poignant critique of the world crossing a metaphoric line from which there is no coming back (perhaps he meant Donald Trump, they would whisper triumphantly). But the song means exactly what the title says it means: Dylan literally re-enacts Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, and the death and violence that follows. His primary artistic drive has always been to subvert expectations, and he never disappoints. Welcome to post-Nobel Dylan, at his most unwilling and defiant.

Dylan’s lyrics are abstract, wickedly witty, replete with surprising pop culture references, sometimes verging on nonsensical free-association.

Rough and Rowdy Ways is a remarkable accomplishment on many counts. Musically, the whole set is minimalist. Light on rhythm, with a signature acoustic blend of classical and the blues, and a trademark rasp that has not diminished at 79, this is a treat even for the Dylan-ambivalents. His lyrics are abstract, wickedly witty, replete with surprising pop culture references, sometimes verging on nonsensical free-association. In the Walt Whitman-inspired ‘I Contain Multitudes’, he namedrops Anne Frank, Indiana Jones and the Rolling Stones in a single line; In another, he invokes Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’.

Throughout the album, one motif stands out: he grapples with the idea of mortality and death, which, through Dylan’s lens, takes on a multitude of meanings—everything including his legacy and afterlife becomes a fleeting shadow of horror under a candlelight of hypnotic chants. ‘Murder Most Foul’, is a darkly illustrative musing on the murder of US president John F. Kennedy; In ‘Mother of Muses’, he sings about having outlived his life. In the loud, electric ‘Goodbye Jimmy Reed’, he canonises the late eponymous American blues musician. Interestingly, death has been a recurring obsession for Dylan; his 2012 album Tempest similarly explores the death of John Lennon.

In ‘My Own Version of You’, he plays a Frankensteinian God, piecing together corpses in a morgue. In ‘You Ain’t Going Nowhere’, he begs the same God to “go easy on him”.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, coinciding with the release of the album, he said he ponders about “the death of the human race” and “the long strange trip of the naked ape”. In the album, death serves as a bigger metaphor, an impressionist’s impression of an era bygone. But, against all odds, Bob Dylan is still mutinous; for the protest singer, mutiny is the highest form of optimism.