A new Bob Dylan album is an event. One never really knows what to expect, though throughout the last decade Bob has proven to be pretty consistent.
I'm going to turn things over to my friend Steve Schwartz. As we were discussing "Tempest," last weekend, I realized I had been in almost complete agreement with all Steve had to say about it, so I asked him if he wanted to do the duty and write it up. He said yes.
Well, I’ve had several uninterrupted listenings of Tempest, and I like it...a lot…although it hasn’t progressed to love yet.
Dylan’s singing here is far more passionate and expressive than it has been in years…at least since Love and Theft. And, as others have noted, the production is vastly superior to most of his recent albums, too. I’m guessing Jack Frost may have had another set of ears helping out in the control room, as there's none of the annoying muddiness heard on the last few releases. And for that alone, I'm grateful: Whatever reservations I may have with this album, each performance has a distinctive sound.
I also think the song sequencing is terrific. The lively opener, “Duquesne Whistle,” while it may or may not be the album’s strongest cut (I’m honestly not sure), is definitely one of Dylan’s best toe-tappers to date. But a big part of the song’s appeal…for me, at least…is the way it wistfully whisks us aboard and masterfully sets us up for the dark journey ahead. In hindsight, the bizarre, violent turn in the music video for the song—which I initially found pretty disturbing—actually makes perfect sense.
That said, this is a complicated affair, full of bloodlust and rage, longing and loss, death and ghosts (including that of John Lennon, who is referenced in two songs on Tempest). Some songs work magnificently—such as “Duquesne Whistle,” the swaggering scorched-earth gem “Pay in Blood,” which lyrically echoes “Masters of War” while borrowing a few chord changes from “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” a lilting, well-crafted ballad of an old love revisited. Other songs—such as the unrelenting “Tin Angel,” “Early Roman Kings” (a rehash of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man”), and the title track, a distant, poorer relation of “Desolation Row” in which Dylan serves up the sinking of the Titanic as an Irish drinking song in 45 verses (I actually think his real goal here may have been to write a song that absolutely no one would ever cover)—don’t succeed nearly as well, but they don’t cause me to lunge for the Skip button, either. The album’s closing track, “Roll On John,” in which Dylan eulogizes Lennon, just perplexes me. It’s well sung with a heartfelt delivery and a pleasant arrangement that vaguely reminds me of Lennon’s own “How.” But lyrically, it’s the album’s weakest link, and the references to Lennon’s songs (and a William Blake poem) strike me as gratuitous.
At 71, I suspect Dylan no longer spends nearly as much time fine-tuning and editing his lyrics as he once did. And, in fact, there are an awful lot of simple “bed-head, wife-life-knife” rhymes here. Nevertheless, I was really...REALLY...happy to hear some great lines and flashes of humor bubble up to the surface (and some that combine both, like “you've got legs that can drive men mad; a lot of things we didn't do that I wish we had” from “Scarlet Town”).
My chief complaint is the cycle of repetitiveness that courses throughout this album…which was also a big reason for my dislike of Modern Times; "Nettie Moore" and "Ain't Talkin'" made me want to open a vein. Even songs that I liked right off the bat, such as “Pay in Blood” and "Narrow Way," remind me why I often don't like this band. Although they’re obviously fine musicians, there's seldom any inventiveness or creativity in their accompaniment. Seriously, “Narrow Way” sounds like a 16-bar backing on a seven-minute loop.
I know a lot of Dylan fans insist that the buck stops with Bob on this score—that the songs simply sound the way he wants them to sound. But still…I can’t help fantasizing how the Highway 61 Revisited musicians (especially Bloomfield) or even Larry Campbell, would have approached these songs. I also think the old man should be a lot more generous when it comes to handing out solos. And frankly, I miss the harmonica, too.
Does Tempest rank among Dylan's best albums? In all honesty, I'd have to say no. But it's certainly his best in the last decade---to my ears, anyway---and even better than some he released in the 1980s. And that's a pretty remarkable feat nonetheless.
I've sat with "Tempest" four times through, each time finding something different to like and something new to irritate me, though my feelings remain as they were on first listen, which is, I like this record a lot.
Steve's chief complaint is also mine. The repetition makes an already demanding listen, as a Dylan record should be, more of a task. I don't agree with Steve regarding "Ain't Talkin'." That happens to be my second favorite song off of "Modern Times," right behind "Workingman's Blues #2." But it seems like "Tempest," more than any of the last four Dylan records, drives that monotony home. This probably has something to do with the combined length of "Tin Angel" and the title track hitting close to 25 minutes.
Still, it isn't my intention to ridicule this record. The majority of it is solid, with my faves "Duquesne Whistle," "Soon After Midnight," "Pay In Blood" and "Narrow Way," as fine as any of Dylan's recent work. I think Steve nailed it.
The video for "Duquesne Whistle" is below.
If you have a few more minutes, hop on over to Burning Love?, where the Bob Dylan discussion will hopefully continue, as we discuss our very favorite songs.