Bob Dylan's Tempest
Bob Dylan's new album, Tempest, has been timed to see release to mark the 50th anniversary of his debut studio recording. Apparently. All they'll ever share in common is the date of release and between them are 33 studio recordings that move from the sublime to the ridiculous. The man who changed the way we think about pop music and what we think of pop music - and made it okay for people with horrific voices - either is your cup of tea, or isn't. But either way to deny his influence and significance would be churlish; or downright idiotic even.
Clearly I'm a Bob Dylan fan; this blog derives its name from one of my favourite Dylan albums.
But, since 1997's Time Out of Mind Dylan worship has been so strong that any backlash, hey, even any single bad word about Dylan, is so often dismissed as being from the pen or mouths of people who just never did get it.
Time Out of Mind was (and is) superb. It is the one record from Dylan's post-1970s material that stacks up with those great records from the mid-1960s and mid-1970s. And everything else that follows has been 50 different shades of okay. Actually most of it has been that one particular shade of grey. But that never seems to stop people from raving and gushing. Just because Bob (still) exists. And probably because his not-quite-blues, pre-rock'n'roll amalgamation of various swing and jive vestiges seems so clever to a lot of people pleased that Dylan has done the early listening for them. Good on him for continuing to hide deep inside the work, away from the inevitable scrutiny. Buried deep in the song the myth of Dylan will always survive. And that of course is remarkable. But beyond that ingrained ability of his, holding on to some form of mystique in an era when even the concept of mystique barely seems to exist this is (mostly) just another set of throwaway tunes.
Thinking about what to write when reviewing a Bob Dylan album is tricky enough these days. My first thought was that it was hard to hear the music over the noise from (and due to) the over-the-top reviews. But Alexis Petridis opened his recent review for The Guardian pointing that very fact out. I've tried to read very little about Tempest, preferring to listen to it. But a routine Google to confirm the release-date marketing-story brought up that review. It's a pretty good one too, I recommend having a read.
But elsewhere there has been idiotic over-praise. Like a Rolling Stone review which, typically, gushes and awards five stars. That means - surely - it's one of the best albums that's been released in the magazine's lifetime? Ridiculous. To even compare it with the other great Dylan albums would seem absurd.
The more time spent with Tempest the less satisfying it seems to be. The more obvious that it's a record that would love to seem as though it has an edge (at times) but is faithful to the expected Dylan sound of this millennium (you know, that one he borrowed/updated from before he ever started making music himself - at one time that was a clever trick, now it's just, and forever, still and always the same).
It's a bit rough but it basically stays on course. It's cruise-control with a few dips over to the shoulder of the road in a hope to hit some loose gravel. This is a safe and careful driver toying with the idea of getting a bit risky.
So the Bob Dylan that offers little more than marionette movements on stage these days, barely eyeing the audience from his keyboard or guitar, also has little to say on an album. And when he does it just feels las though we've heard it all before - back when Bob was trying. And again there's been talk of funny lines, suggestions too of how great Dylan the lyricist was. The more lyrics he writes the better he used to seem. And he always did seem pretty good back in the day. But now the magic, when there is some, is delivered so totally po-faced, so lacking in spark, so decidedly non-playful as to slip by seeming lazier than it actually was. But I remember the rave-reviews about Love and Theft and Modern Times, talking up the humour. Gruffly delivered dad-jokes, weren't they? Hilarious!
Reviews and fan-comments have talked about the anger in this album and the darkness. But it's mostly unconvincing and often boring. It's true that Dylan does anger well, back when he was writing kiss-off songs they were the best. And brutal. But here it's lazy and soft and though my favourite songs on Tempest are the ones where it feels a bit stormy (like the rather wonderful Tin Angel) it seems that if you play for life with a poker face no one knows if it's tongue-in-cheek or a strange manifestation of being bored.
I almost feel I can hear Dylan fall asleep on some of the songs here - and the band is so slick as to offer too little rather than the required just enough. It's great to have David Hidalgo on board again, sure, but it's nothing more than a pay-cheque for him. Ditto Charlie Sexton. And of the post-Time Out of Mind albums, which is how all the records Dylan now releases must be judged (since it's variations on that theme, essentially) this feels most like Together Through Life. And plays out in much the same way - in that it's not at all terrible or ghastly. But often lazy and bordering on pointless.
I never understood the rave reviews for Love & Theft, which is absolutely an okay album, but not much more beyond that. But I did (and do) like the fact that the playing has some spark. Here's it's all dreary and mope-infused. Admittedly Tin Angel would be the song that broods the longest, in the slowest, most monotonous way. But it works. A mood is conjured, observed and fulfilled. The title track is farcical, nearly quarter of an hour long as Bob barks out the story of the Titanic - adding in some of his own made-up lines to a history-book recital. And on and on it spills over a bucolic folk chord pattern that just repeats itself endlessly - even The Clancy Brothers would be embarrassed.
And much has already been made of album opener Duquesne Whistle, where Dylan goes for a cute Louis Armstrong-type-of-thing and does something you wouldn't think Dylan would do: plays ball by offering the obvious single that is then in no real way indicative of the rest of the album. It's a sweet sound - but only for a few seconds. Then you start to think that he's creating a pisstake sideshow/carnival act. And it carries on through much of the record; that feel. At times it sounds (and seems) like this is Bob Dylan-pretending-to-be-Tom Waits-pretending-to-be Bob Dylan.
Duquesne Whistle is the obvious song for Dylan to add to the live show, that Never Ending Tour will continue. And there will be a song or two from Tempest, just as there was one or two from Love & Theft and one or two (or a few more at times) from Modern Times. And then it will be forgotten.
If you really want to see where Dylan is at these days, buy a ticket and have a go at deciphering when and what he's singing the next time he stops by your town. Giving four stars or more to his new album - in this case Tempest - is obscene. Dylan has been making three-star albums for most of his career. A handful of masterpieces have carried the legend. That handful has only been added to once post-1980.
But this is the thing; there are these glimpses on Tempest! You hear it on Narrow Way, more so on Early Roman Kings, Pay in Blood and Scarlet Town. It's clearest to my ears on Tin Angel. Much as Bob is dressing up as a Tom Waits that wants to be Bob Dylan, Tempest is Together Through Life pretending to be (and hoping it is) Time Out of Mind. And that's what makes this so unsatisfying in the wake of not being truly awful and dire and an obvious disaster. It wants to be good. It wants to be more than good - it's striving to be as good as it can be. But there's no heart or passion or guts there anymore. And there hasn't been since all that smoke got blown up his ass over Love & Theft and Modern Times; since the success of Time Out of Mind.
This is just another assignment. Handed in, nonchalantly expecting the pass-mark that it will ultimately get.
What do you think of Tempest? Have you heard it? Will you buy it? Or have you heard it already and been brutally disappointed?
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