The nation is torn apart with racial strife while still in the midst of a global pandemic. Everything is broken.
So it’s only fitting that Bob Dylan should choose June 19 to release “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first album of original material in eight years. Prefigured by the surprise release in early April of its closing track, “Murder Most Foul,’’ a 17-minute epic that deals with the John F. Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, the new record offers a sometimes elegiac, sometimes raucous take on contemporary culture.
And the 79-year-old Nobel Prize winner, who’s previously tackled racial injustice in songs such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’’ and “Only A Pawn in Their Game’’ offered a rare response to recent events.
“It sickened me no end to see George [Floyd] tortured like that,’’ he told historian Douglas Brinkley in an interview for the New York Times. “Let’s hope that justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation.’’
Over the course of his career, Dylan has been a quintessential Jewish American anti-hero, changing his name, and then his styles — from folk to rock, to country, and back again — with dizzying, sometimes mystifying rapidity. No one else has cut quite the same figure, though writer Philip Roth and comedian Lenny Bruce shared the same defiant unwillingness to trim their sails.
One of the new tunes, “False Prophet,” addresses the singer’s conflicted refusal to bend to expectations.
“I opened my heart to the world and the world came in,’’ Dylan allows, to a jaunty blues beat. “I ain’t no false prophet — I just know what I know. I go where only the lonely go.’’
Nothing if not ambitious, the second track, “I Contain Multitudes,” nods to Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”
“I go right to the edge, I go right to the end.
I go right where all things lost are made good again.”
Well, maybe over the edge, as he ventures a tin-eared connection between Anne Frank, Indiana Jones “and them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.’’ At least it rhymes.
But despite the occasional false note, Dylan is having fun here — the effects of aging are nowhere in evidence.
Dylan has always been a shapeshifter. His last studio release, 2017’s “Triplicate,” was a quixotic three-album project featuring his covers of classic American standards. And it’s been clear since “Nashville Skyline’’ in 1969 that he’s an anti-modernist, with little to no interest in re-creating the peaks of “Highway 61 Revisited’’ or “Blonde on Blonde.’’
As Dylan acknowledged in a “60 Minutes’’ interview with the late Ed Bradley back in 2004: “You can’t do something forever. I did it once, and I can do other things now.”
What he can still do, uniquely, is remind us of who we are, where we’ve been and, perhaps, where we’re going.
Conspiracy theorists have jumped on references in “Murder Most Foul’’ to Jack Ruby, Oswald and the Zapruder film as an indication that Dylan has joined the ranks of those who think JFK was killed by a lone gunman.
But his scope is broader. The death of the president is just one of many tragedies playing out over the long reach of time.
The last verse pays tribute to the complicated ghosts of the past:
“Play ‘Love Me Or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell,’’ he sings. “Play the ‘Blood-stained Banner,’ play ‘Murder Most Foul.’’’
It’s been overlooked amid the assassination kerfuffle, but the banner in question is the last Confederate flag, the same bloody rag being taken down, along with statues of traitorous generals, as we speak.
When he released “Murder Most Foul” at the stroke of midnight on April 6, Dylan said it was written “a while back,’’ before all of this happened. But somehow, as usual, he seemed to know what was coming.