In many ways, Bob Dylan’s new album (his 35th studio recording in a 50 year career) is unreviewable, as almost any record he releases at this point in his illustrious and storied career would be. Specifically, a contemporary Dylan album of new material is difficult, if not impossible, to review because of whatever relationship it will occupy with his singular and, in terms of innovation, unrivalled back catalogue. This complication of comparison with past work, a mostly useful commonplace of critical discourse, applies to Dylan in a way it doesn’t to most other artists; it is also applicable not only to his ’60s heyday, but almost as much to his ‘revival’, which has been going on now for at least the past 15 years. It’s quite a pitfall too, because it pertains equally to reviewers who opine ‘it’s as good as his best’ as it does to those who argue ‘it’s fine, but it’s not as good as his best’. (Now watch me fall into the second trap, and then try to drag myself out of it.)
The only sane response to this conundrum is to yell loudly: ‘how could it be?’ (as good as his best, that is). It hardly needs me to reiterate that those mid-60s albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, didn’t just revise the rules, but changed the entire game, as regards how people produce and consume, make and think about, popular music, even people who don’t know about them or have never heard them. As Greil Marcus has written, that trilogy ‘…ranks with the most intense outbreaks of 20th century modernism.’ Equally, and without wishing to indulge in hyperbole, it is debatable whether or not a more viscerally honest, nakedly raging, poetic account of emotional turmoil has been committed to disc than Blood On The Tracks, before or since. Add to the weight of ‘how could it be?” the fact that Bob has mostly spent the years since these colossal watersheds in retreat, exploring, but hardly redefining or amalgamating, genres – blues, country, early rock’n’roll, some folk, a little jazz – which already existed prior to the musical revolution he instigated.
Thus, witness the ridiculousness of the attention-seeking, gormless Paul Morley claiming, on BBC’s Culture Review, that Tempest is as good as the classics, albums one suspects he is more familiar with by reputation than experience. Consider also the normally perceptive Allan Jones, a man who really should know better, who in a breathlessly florid review in Uncut awards Tempest a 10/10 rating. So it’s a perfect (storm of a) record then, is it, Big Al? No, it isn’t.
Perhaps reactions like those highlighted are just symptomatic of the mainstream media’s tendency to over-praise standard Dylan material now in over-compensation for all those years in the 80s and 90s they spent writing him off as a has-been. Indeed, it is amusing to observe the more right-on elements of his audience, in their nervous revisionism, referring to his fundamentalist, evangelical Christian output as his ‘gospel’ period. As for the ‘fine, but not as good as his best’ wing, of which I am here pretty much one: as can be gleaned from the above argument, you aren’t really saying anything that isn’t patently obvious. Or did you really expect him to keep getting better with every new release? Or even to equal a run of creative excellence that few if any have equaled since, so that one can trot other that other great critical cliché, the ‘real return to form’. So, thank you for your valuable input. As for those who will think Tempest crap, well they’re just the same ones who’ve never liked him, or ‘don’t get him’, or think he ‘can’t sing’, and any new Dylan album isn’t going to change their minds at this stage. So, that’s why Tempest is unreviewable.
However…(deep breath)…in some kind of attempt at balance between the craziness and redundancy of the extremes already outlined, let me try to continue the review by positing a potentially fruitful line of approach. Insofar as it’s impossible to judge this record in isolation from every other record Dylan has made (just as it would not be beneficial to do so in relation to any other artist and their oeuvre), that is, as though you’d never heard anything else by him before (which, in this unique case might well be ideal), let’s endeavor to imagine that it’s the latest release by any other established singer-songwriter of roughly similar age and background, contemporaries of Dylan’s like Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon, etc.; and, in a like manner, let’s park the head-and-shoulders-above-anyone-else masterpieces for the moment, and treat Tempest like any other perfectly good Dylan album, which if anyone else produced it, would be applauded as a damn fine record, like Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Planet Waves, Desire, Street Legal, Infidels, Oh Mercy etc. (And isn’t it interesting that when reviewers write of a new Dylan album being ‘his best since..’, there is rarely any consensus about which album it’s his best since?)
Like last year’s Tom Waits’ Bad As Me, which kicked off with a train song ‘Chicago’, Tempest starts with another upbeat ode to the rails, the trad jazzy ‘Duquesne Whistle’, replete with Satchmoesque vocal timbre and inflections. It’s pleasant, but feels ephemeral. Like many cuts on the album, if you’re looking for some unifying theme, it deals with an uncompleted journey. This one may yet reach its destination; others have been terminally interrupted.
‘Soon After Midnight’ is a tender love song, about not realising that the one you were looking for was there all along, which plays knowingly with too-obvious Tin Pan Alley rhymes: ‘It’s now or never/More than ever/When I met you I didn’t think you’d do/It’s soon after midnight/And I don’t want nobody but you.’ It’s followed by ‘Narrow Way’, a jaunty, chugging blues. Bolstered by the fiddle of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, it borrows a chorus from the Mississippi Sheiks’ 1934 ‘You’ll Work Down To Me Someday.’ It’s also a prime example of the too many incidences of dourly repetitive riffing that mars much of the album, which overall is lyrically fecund but musically unadventurous. Dylan has stuck rigidly to a now wearily familiar musical template, his favoured mode remaining a slow, listless shuffle. When this is combined with a tendency to let songs outstay their welcome, and a continued reliance on stale, reheated blues riffs, it’s a recipe for mediocrity. Plus, the band is not allowed nearly as much freedom as it was on 2009’s Together Through Life, and one misses the raunchier contributions of Tom Petty lieutenant, Mike Campbell to that record. What’s more frustrating, however, is that this is still a seasoned group of highly skilled musicians, who are not being permitted to deviate from a stagnant pool of melodic and harmonic ideas. Just because they are playing standard bar band music doesn’t mean they have to play it like a standard bar band.
The next four tracks, sequenced plum in the middle of the ten selections, form the core of the album, and contain all that is best and most intriguing about it. ‘Long And Wasted Years’, built around a lovely descending tolling bells guitar riff in the turnaround, is an ostensible dissection of a long, stormy relationship or rough marriage, as plaintive as ‘Shelter From The Storm’ as it last verse mourns: ‘We cried on a cold and frosty morn/We cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears/So much for these long and wasted years.’
‘Pay In Blood’ is perhaps the angriest song Dylan has recorded since the romantic rage of ‘Idiot Wind’, or at least since his un-P.C. defense of the state of Israel, ‘Neighbourhood Bully’. A funky, Stonesy stomp, whose riff and rhythm recall ‘Hand Of Fate’, it’s the album standout, because it puts some blood in the music. Even if the addressee, here as elsewhere, remains exasperatingly nebulous (although, as with ‘Early Roman Kings’ gangster bankers would be an educated guess), it’s good to hear the snarl is back. On an album that only occasionally aspires to the flightiness of Ariel, mostly in its beginning and ending, Dylan liberally lets fly with a few choice epithets throughout, echoing Caliban’s ‘you taught me language, and profit on it is, I know how to curse.’
The eerie ‘Scarlett Town’ is a reworking of the traditional ballad ‘Barbara Allen’. With banjo and fiddle to the fore, it has the stately cadences of the Gillian Welch song, from last year’s The Harrow and The Harvest, with which it shares a title. The creamy, analogue delay, Gilmoresque guitar solo, which emerges near the end, is so surprising in the context of the rest of this album, and even this particular song, that it comes as quite a shock, albeit it a pleasant one. ‘Early Roman Kings’ is not the first song that has appropriated Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ riff, and it won’t be the last, but at least it imbues it with a country twinge, and has the novelty of David Hidalgo this time providing according accompaniment.
I can’t much see the point of the love triangle revenge story related in ‘Tin Angel’, or at least not when recounted repetitiously at its nine minute length. The lapidary old testament vignettes on John Wesley Harding do the same kind of thing with more forceful economy and allegorical weight, making this bloated murder/suicide ballad a poor relation to ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’, without the complex and colourful plotline.
And so we arrive at the 14 minute, 45 verse title track, which is also the weakest cut here, the gaping hole that should have been filled more discerningly, or else never let set sail. The problem isn’t, perforce, length: the long song has long been a staple of Dylan’s repertoire, from as early as ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’, ‘With God On Our Side’, ‘Chimes Of Freedom’, and ‘Ballad In Plain D’, to middle period extensions like ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Sad Eyed Lady of The Lowlands’, to more recent examples like ‘Highlands’ and ‘Ain’t Talkin’. Indeed, the exploding of the idea that ‘pop’ songs had to be short was one of the paradigm shifts effected by the Dylan revolution.
Rather, the trouble is that so little is done with that 14 minute wide canvas. This time, more is not more; or rather, it is, but not in a good way. The same lilting, 16 bar, waltz-time Irish melody repeated ad infinitum, with little or no variation, no revealing vocal ticks or technique, would get on anyone’s tits, and invites the eventual salutary use of the skip button. The Titanic may still sail at dawn, but this is no latter day ‘Desolation Row’, as Allen Jones unwisely suggests, lacking as it does that magnum opus’ frighteningly nightmarish imagery and surreally macabre cast of characters, and its edgy, wracked performance. Aside from all of which, I’m sure Bob Dylan knows that The Titanic was sunk by an iceberg, not a storm, unless the general conflagration is what constitutes the metaphorical tempest.
That just leaves the closer, the Lennon tribute ‘Roll On John’, another tale of an aborted journey, which depending on your temperament, or even mood, can be described as ‘heartwarming’ or, alternatively, ‘mawkish’. At least it’s ‘better than’ The Cranberries’ risible ‘I Just Shot John Lennon.’
So, there you have it: the proverbial curate’s egg, a decidedly mixed bag. Which means it’s certainly not up there with Blonde On Blonde, but nor is it down there with Self Portrait. Of his more recent albums, with which it makes far more sense to compare it, it’s not as good as Time Out Of Mind, but probably better than Modern Times. Which means it’s a must have for Dylanphiles (as indeed any new release from the man would be), but as one of the finer records of the year so far, despite its flaws, is also of interest to the casual fan.
Our revels now are ended. For the time being, at least. But one suspects that this riverboat Prospero, like some Wizard of Oz shyster shaman, a trickster who is not necessarily a charlatan – a character type which stretches back in American letters at least as far as Mark Twain – has not quite abjured his rough magic, buried his staff and drowned his book, just yet.