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On June 19, by coincidence, two of rock music’s oldest and most revered singer-songwriters, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, released new albums. For Dylan, who’s 79, it was his 39th studio recording. For Young, who’s 74, it was his 40th.
For anyone who thinks life is over after (insert any two-digit number here), these poster boys of aging gloriously prove why the 70s can be just another great decade. They’ve lived through rock ’n’ roll’s entire lifespan and their long view seems to be that there’s still so very much to live for.
Unlike Leonard Cohen’s last album You Want It Darker (2016), which was filled with personal reflections on mortality and released three weeks before his death, Dylan’s Rough And Rowdy Days is a rich and kaleidoscopic masterpiece that surveys history, politics, theology, mythology and pop culture in the past century.
There are rootsy folk numbers, gentle ballads, rowdy rock songs and a sprawling 17-minute number. If name-dropping was the name of the game, Dylan all but beats Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire. Throughout the album – his first album of original songs in eight years – Dylan references dozens of figures who represent important cultural milestones, from William Shakespeare and Buster Keaton to Beethoven and Etta James.
STUFFED WITH GEMS
The first single of the album is Murder Most Foul, the aforementioned 17-minute ballad that explores the assassination of US President John F Kennedy within the context of American culture. Singing in his characteristic croak of a voice, he recounts various details of the shooting, before letting the song devolve into a profound portrait of America in decline. It stands as Dylan’s longest song and perhaps the most unlikely No. 1 hit on Billboard’s list of digital rock song sales.
But that’s not even the best song on Rough And Rowdy Days. There are a few songs that eclipse it, such as the opener. I Contain Multitudes conveys the beautiful idea that we are all complicated creatures, forged not just by experiences, but also the ideas and inspiration we gather from great artists, from William Blake to The Rolling Stones. (This song could be a fitting riposte to the topical Singapore controversy over artists being “non-essential workers”.)
Even when Dylan gets personal in the gorgeous love song I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You, it is broad-ranging vision of a man who’s seen it all, but is pushing aside his jadedness to start believing in love again:
I've traveled a long road of despair /
I've met no other traveler there /
Lot of people gone, lot of people I knew /
I've made up my mind to give myself to you
The main theme of the album is that humanity is rough and rowdy, but the history of humankind is also lit with figures who lived with passion, bravery and sheer brilliance. And it is they whom we should draw inspiration from.
In the case of Young, his 40th studio album Homegrown is actually a lost one. It was written and produced some 45 years ago when he was going through a breakup with Oscar-nominated actress Carrie Snogdress, who was cheating on him. Young recorded it in 1974, but decided to shelve it because it dredged up too many bad memories.
On his own website, he wrote: “It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind… but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.”
These past few years have been fruitful for Young. In 2019, he delivered Colorado, a hard-hitting album that passionately addresses climate change. But Homegrown is filled with a different kind of passion, a sad mournful reflection of everything that had gone wrong with Snodgress.
Working on simple chords and spare arrangement, Young sounds especially raw and elemental. In the album’s opening song Separate Ways, he sings:
We go our separate ways /
Lookin' for better days... /
Me for me, you for you /
Happiness is never through
He follows up this song with another melancholy gem, Try, in which he pleads with her for a second chance. The album continues with other heartbreakers, such as Kansas and White Line. But perhaps the best song in the album is Love Is a Rose, which has a melody and lyrics so catchy, a child could learn it.
Love is a rose but you'd better not pick it /
It only grows when it's on the vine /
Hand full of thorns, and you know you've missed it /
Lose your love when you say the word “mine”
Sung in his nasal, warbling voice (with Emmylou Harris providing occasional backup vocals), Homegrown is a beautiful album about grief destined to have many going through personal losses turning to it for comfort.
Coincidentally, on June 19 as well, two other music stars beside Young and Dylan also released new albums. John Legend , 41, and Jason Mraz, 43, released Bigger Love and Look For The Good respectively. Yet, despite being at least three decades younger than Dylan and Young, Legend and Mraz have put out embarrassingly mediocre efforts, filled with syrupy lyrics, ho-hum melodies and unoriginal concepts.
Thank heavens for Dylan and Young, still “rockin’ in the free world”, showing us how it’s done.