Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bob Dylan - Tempest

Columbia Records, 2012
Four stars

Of the living legends still making music, none have created a legacy as remarkable, as challenging, and as endlessly rewarding as Bob Dylan. Since releasing his debut in 1961, Dylan has recorded 35 studio albums, altered the boundaries of both folk music and rock 'n' roll, won a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrical prowess, been the subject of numerous fascinating (and baffling) accounts, both in writing and on film, and morphed his sound, voice, and writing style on countless occasions. Along the way, he's made almost as many disappointments or duds as he has classics, but as of late, he's settled into a groove that it's hard to find much fault with. Ever since he entered his "late career renaissance" with 1997's Time out of Mind, Dylan’s output has been solid and occasionally brilliant. It’s also been relatively safe, resting mostly within a comfortable blues-rock tradition that suits his increasingly raspy voice incredibly well.

His 35th album, evocatively entitled Tempest, doesn’t look or sound too different on the surface. Songs like “Early Roman Kings” and the incendiary “Narrow Way” offer up the same kind of enjoyable yet derivative blues-rock exercises that have made up the bulk of Dylan’s last few albums. But as one delves further into the dense lyrical matter of these songs, or into the musical sweep of the album’s finest moments, they will find a collection that feels remarkably unsettling and resoundingly final. Rolling Stone called it Dylan’s darkest album to date, and the assessment isn’t far off the mark. The songs on Tempest are deeply mournful, saturated with death, doom, and defeat. “Long and Wasted Years” plays like a sequel to Time out of Mind’s masterful “Not Dark Yet,” from the warm, muggy instrumental atmosphere to its minimalist musical structure and meandering lyrical form. “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,” Dylan growls at the song’s conclusion. He sounds resilient, even in the face of regret and death, and that resilience is one of Tempest’s most palpable themes, as well as its greatest strength.

But while “Long and Wasted Years” may show off the album’s triumphs, from the aforementioned themes to Dylan’s strangely wry sense of irony, and especially to the warm and full-bodied musical backdrop (the band is in top form here, adding violins, banjos, mandolins, and steel guitars as the texture requires), it is also a textbook example of its greatest drawback. “Meandering" is a term that could be applied to much of Dylan’s work, even in his heyday. It’s that excessive aspect of his songwriting, along with his rough and unorthodox vocal style, that makes his music divisive for many listeners. And Dylan’s excesses are alive and well here: the average song length is just shy of seven minutes, and too many of them overstay their welcomes. There are exceptions of course: sometimes, Dylan’s strophic manner of songwriting works perfectly, like on the rollicking first single and album opener that is “Duquesne Whistle,” or with the haunting murder tale that he constructs on “Tin Angel.” Elsewhere, Dylan shows that he is capable of being concise, like with the gorgeous romantic sweep of “Soon After Midnight,” or the dusky guitar-driven “Pay in Blood," but occasionally, he just sounds like a broken record. Take the lurching, interminable weak point that is “Scarlet Town,” or even the centerpiece title track, which clocks in at just under 14 minutes. It goes on for twice as long as it should but it's still a vintage Dylan ballad that needs to be heard. A fiddle intro lends the song a lovely Irish lilt, and Dylan’s lyrical narrative – all 45 verses of it – gives the Titanic disaster the epic folk legend it deserves...right down to a referential appearance from Leonardo DiCaprio. It sounds like the kind of song Dylan would have written decades ago, more reminiscent of his folk-music roots than his rock ‘n’ roll revolution or his latter-day blues, and the return-to-form is a welcome change of pace. It’s too long, but that’s part of the form.

When Dylan announced the name of this record, many speculated that it was a curtain call. After all, Shakespeare’s final play bore the title The Tempest, and it seemed that, if the rock ‘n’ roll poet was going to go out on his own terms, he might as well do it in a similar fashion to the legendary artist with whom he shares the most in common. Dylan was the first to point out the lack of the word “the” in his own work, stating that its absence resulted in two different titles and no connection between them, but throughout, Tempest sounds like a man who is about ready to pull his last job. If that’s the case, then the gorgeous closer that is “Roll on John” functions as the perfect finale. “I heard the news today, oh boy/They hauled your ship up on the shore/Now the city’s gone dark, there is no more joy/They tore the heart right out and cut it to the core,” Dylan sings, over a ringing organ that evokes church scenes, and in the same ragged, Tom Waits-esque vocal style that has marked every line of the record. He doesn’t sound tired: he doesn’t sound broken or used up or even particularly old, but he does give off the air that he knows something we don’t. It’s in the manner that he references and borrows from old Beatles songs without pause, in the potentially parodic way that he eulogizes a man who has been dead for almost 32 years; and it’s certainly there in the music, a simple wistful melody which recalls that moment in a film right before the credits roll. If Tempest is the last piece of Dylan’s untouchable legacy, then it’s almost the perfect cap, one last curveball from rock ‘n’ roll’s most uncompromising figure. If it’s not, if he still has a few more surprises left in him, then it’s still his best record since Love and Theft. Coming along 11 years to the day after that record hit the streets, 11 years after it coincided with the most tragic day in recent American history, it seems like that might have been the point. But you can never really know with Bob Dylan.

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