Monday, September 10, 2012

Bob Dylan's "Tempest": Not Bad, Zimmy. Not Bad.

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.

Steve Schwartz:

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.

Thanks, Steve.

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.


Gyro1966 said...

I listened to the first few tracks, but his voice is just not tolerable for me anymore. I have so much great music to play from so many eras and genres, how can i spend 60 minutes on this?

soundsource said...

I don't know how long it's been since I listened to a Dylan album stat to finish (or any album the age of iTunes for that matter) as opposed to random songs but for some reason I did with this one and I thought it was a really fine record. Dylan sounds great and the backing compliments the songs. Plus it had a good beat and I could dance to it so I give it and 8.5.

wardo said...

I agree, based on the iTunes streams I enjoyed. I do like it, but I haven't decided if it's on the level of Time Out Of Mind or Love And Theft. I was not impressed by Modern Times, and less so by Together Through Life. My early prediction for the official Everybody's Dummy review (coming to a blog near you next week!) will be four stars, not five.

Jeff Matthews said...

I've listened 4 or 5 times now. The final two tracks don't work for me. The title track just isn't that interesting as a story or in its images, and at times the rhymes and situations are lazy and cliche; I do like some of the instrumental breaks, especially the last one, but it just doesn't stand up for 13 min. "Roll On John" is misguided and almost amateurish in my opinion. The rest of the album has gotten better each time. "Duquesne Whistle" almost made it onto my Dylan top ten over at Burning Love. I happen to really like Eraly Roman Kings in addition to the others that you've highlighted.

Oxy said...

Remember the first time you heard Dylan? I actually do, as I would assume most reading this little comment do, too. Such a unique talent. Remember that magical feeling? Well, you're not going to find it listening to "Tempest.". His voice was going a long time ago and now it's completely shot. I saw him live around four years ago and it was very, very painful. Not just to my ears, but to my mind as well. I think I understood about every tenth word he sang. I hate to sound like a music snob, but I really can't handle listening to his recent albums, anymore. He put out so many great albums during his very fruitful and long career. I kinda wish he'd just call it quits and let the people keep their fond memories of him and his music. I'd rather listen to all his generally acknowledged masterpiece albums from years gone by than this or recent fare. I've read a lot of reviews regarding this album and they all seem to have a similar flavor to me. That would be his bigger (and probably older) fans attempting to find some merit or Dylan from the past in the cuts on this LP. It's not there. Even if these were the best songs he ever wrote (and there not), his voice would ruin them all. "Duquesne Whistle" contains some good lyrics and music, but I wish Dylan would have farmed out this out (and any other good new tunes) to be sung by more capable artists. Thinking it over, I think if he did exactly that, it might just might win him some new (and younger) fans and sell some of his brilliant and unique earlier albums. It's a pity they're all collecting dust now, as anyone who ever heard the real Dylan already has them all. Anyone whose first taste of Dylan is this album is going to stop right here. Back to "Tempest" and the opinion of a huge Dylan fan - not bad, but not very good. Forgive me Bob, but you used to be all about truth and I hope you still are...

Sal Nunziato said...

"Remember that magical feeling? Well, you're not going to find it listening to "Tempest.""

Uh...I did. Maybe not a sustained 60 minute magical feeling, but it was there for me, especially on the songs I cited.

I won't speak for Steve who wrote the bulk of the review, or Will Hermes who raved in Rolling Stone about it, but I would think they felt something too.

I think citing Dylan's voice is a strange criticism. Even in 1966, people hated his voice. Was it a better singing voice then, or just a younger kind of uncomfortable?

Bob is 71 and yes his voice is in desperate need of a lozenge, but it would make more sense to shut down some fine recent albums if he once sang like Elvis Presley.

Oxy said...


Okay, I can buy the fact that you and others got a bit of magic out of this album, but I'd be willing to wager that there are a lot of fans out there, like gyro and me, who didn't.

Yes, Dylan was never the world's greatest singer, but he was very competent at his craft. My point is that now his voice is so shot, for me, the vocals are too annoying to listen to for very long and very hard to understand, at times. Simply my opinion, but I feel his craft suffers because of this. I wish it was otherwise. Yes, there will be those who vehemently disagree with me. It's a given.

It was never my intent to sling mud on Steve's or anyone else's review. It was just a personal comment from a Dylan lover who's now calling it quits. He will always have been a great artist to me...

I have a feeling that every album Dylan puts out until his last one will get rave reviews from a lot of fans and critics. I will probably make the same comments I made here after each one. I expect to see great reviews down the road. After all, he is Dylan.

Sal Nunziato said...


Never thought for a second you were slinging mud. I'm just responding to what seemed like more than just an opinion.

I welcome ALL conversation as long as the commenters do, as well.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I don't think Bob has put anything out worth listening to since "Blood On The Tracks", not that I've heard any of it. I have a limited lifespan, and need to spend it with better music than third rate Bob Dylan albums.

steves said...

"Even if these were the best songs he ever wrote (and there not), his voice would ruin them all. "Duquesne Whistle" contains some good lyrics and music, but I wish Dylan would have farmed out this out (and any other good new tunes) to be sung by more capable artists."

I'm not looking to start a debate, but I simply can't see how you can describe yourself as a "Dylan lover" and then go on to say something like that. The notion of Dylan "farming" out his songs is bizarre, but especially these latest one, since--as someone recently noted (sorry, I can't recall who at the moment)--they really aren't written for any voice but his.

I understand where you're coming from about his singing, however. Dylan's voice has undergone a major change since the late 1990s, and it's not everybody's cup of tea (but then, like Sal said, it never was). I suppose you can either accept that "things have changed," and listen to him as he is, or just keep listening to his old records and quit there. The latter isn't really an option for me as I still think he has plenty to say...and I don't really need to hear any interpretations when I can get it firsthand. That's just my choice, of course. YMMV.

Steve Schwartz

Sal Nunziato said...

That's great, Buzz. What is it exactly that these comments of yours are meant to express? That you can form an opinion on music that you haven't heard? That Dylan fans who genuinely enjoy his work post "BOTT" are wasting their limited lifespan?

This is worst than the Huffington Post.

buzzbabyjesus said...

My comment is meant to express that I'd rather listen to something else than look for reasons why the new album isn't so bad. Which is what every Dylan fan has done since BOTT.
From what I understand that was the last classic album. Ever since it's been scattered gems. Make a weekend mix of them and I'll listen.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

I love Dylan's voice ( saw him live last week, too )
In my opinion, it's one of the most emotionally effective instruments I've ever heard. In angry songs, he can sing with more bite and grit than anyone I can name, but can sing with soft, effective emotion when it is called for.
You can still here that softer voice here in the newest record on Scarlet Town and Tin Angel, and you can hear that other, darker, raspier sound on Pay In Blood, but it's always an inimitable voice , often an emotional powerhouse ( Check Dreamin' Of You from the last Bootleg Series )
All Dylan fans tire of hearing those "Dylan can't sing" whiners ( who somehow latch onto Tom Petty and Tom Waits though, without Dylan,.... )as if they've forgotten that the same complaints have always followed him from the start, and he's outlasted them all.
Brando was "a mumbler", Picasso couldn't get the eyes on straight, but like Dylan, they changed their medium forever.
I think the new album is great. Not every song, but not a clunker in the lot ( Roll On John is my least favorite so far )
Gyro should learn to get through more than a few tracks . Several of the last few are not to be missed, and the voice even sounds different on those. It's a dark, beautiful;, many-textured, many layered record with a lot to take in.
You REALLY don't think Dylan has earned 60 minutes of your attention by this point? You're really too busy with music from 'so many eras and genres" that a new Dylan album doesn't deserve ONE pass ? An artist who has been so far ahead of everyone for decades doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt that he might show you something new ?
And to the guy who hasn't listened since Blood On The Tracks, why on earth are you posting and reading on a music blog ?
I'm sure some critic met Blood On The Tracks with a bad " he can't sing" review.
Why would any of you post without fully listening?
Nobody's voice is for everybody, and why should it be, but Dylan's offers something no other does. The direct thoughts of Dylan, expressed without a filter of interpretation, with honest emotion, and careful attention. It's a voice I welcome, and a voice I love. He's certainly put out a bunch of clunkers over the years as has everyone, but it's albums as strong as this one that guarantee I lend an ear each time. (Best I can do on no sleep, Sal. Welcome back )

Sal Nunziato said...

Funny you mention Brando, whoever you are, because I had been thinking about Brando last night. My favorite actor, by far, and someone who right until the very end, lit up every scene he was in.

Anyone see "The Score?" Not a bad little film and Marlon was fantastic. This is not to say everyone should rush over to Netflix and queue up "The Island Of Dr. Moreau." But as a fan of Brando, I knew I needed to see it, and even with a diaper on his head, I found he had something to offer. This is what a fan does, no?

"The Score" isn't "Streetcar" anymore than "Tempest" is "Blood On The Tracks," but if you gave up on Brando after what is arguably a dozen mediocre or worse films in the 60s, you never would have seen "The Godfather."

I guess this is why I get a bit ornery regarding Dylan. Compare his entire output to say Neil Young. Dylan has 36 critically acclaimed releases (at least 3 stars or more) versus 9 critically panned releases. Neil Young has approx. the same on both, yet no one dismisses Neil. Talk about finding reasons to like something. "Americana" reviews anyone?

It is also why Buzz, your comment "I'd rather listen to something else than look for reasons why the new album isn't so bad" irks me just a bit. I don't think Steve's review, my comments, or any of the raves imply "looking for reasons." My reason, and the reasons written so far, have been "Tempest" is a good, if not great album. It's one thing if you're not a fan. I get that. I totally get respecting Dylan but not actively listening to Dylan. I don't get loving Dylan, or anyone for that matter who has been fairly consistent for so long, then suddenly not wanting to bother because he doesn't sound the same.

And also ANON, great line about Petty and Waits.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I watched the video of "Duquense Whistle" twice. Not bad. Nothing in the posted review makes me want to hear more.

Anonymous said...

"I watched the video of "Duquense Whistle" twice. Not bad. Nothing in the posted review makes me want to hear more."

Sounds like we'd need to break out the rack in order to make that happen.

Gyro1966 said...

I gave it a quick preview, and I found his voice to be gone, and the music to be samey-sounding. It's a very tough listen. If another lesser known artist made this album, it would go unnoticed. Many Dylan-loving friends of mine feel the same way, unfortunately. But I do respect all the great music he has made in the past. I give credit to anyone who takes the immense time & effort to really appreciate his recent laborious work. It just isn't for me at all.

The Grim Reefer said...

As a long time die-hard Dylan pains me to agree with Gyro...

Gyro1966 said...

And don't forget, Neil Young is coming out with a new 2 CD set called "Psychedelic Pill" in October. A total of 9 songs on 2 filled-to-the-max Cd's, many of the songs are 30 and 40 minutes long! Amazon is taking pre-orders now.

Sal Nunziato said...


I got that Neil e-mail today. Don't know if I should laugh or cry.

I know I will listen though.

Gyro1966 said...

Ok, here is an idea I threw at a few friends a couple years ago. Since Dylan still wants to perform and write, what if he added a vocalist who was true to his vision, and let him sing the songs. Bob can still play guitar in the band, and still have control. He could let the "younger Dylan" record his songs in the studio, with Bob's vision intact. He could then write more creative songs to suite this younger Dylan artist. Is this such a crazy idea?

Sal Nunziato said...


Yes. Crazy.

Maybe Elvis Costello can find someone who writes songs the way he used to on "This Year's Model."

Gyro1966 said...

Now that is an extreme. I'm not suggesting that he write songs like he did in the 60's. I'm only suggesting that he can still be bandleader and writer, but let someone who has a strong Younger Dylan voice be the lead singer. That way he could write more versatile songs that this younger Dylan can sing with the extended range. I believe Bob's voice is gone. But I know my idea is crazy!

Anonymous said...

I'd MUCH rather hear Bob sing his own lyrics than hear ANYONE else sing those songs, period.
Even the best Dylan covers, and there are amazing ones, lack that special something Bob can bring to them. He feels every word. He knows every nuance, and he sings them, when he wants to, with a passion unrivaled.
ONLY Bob knows what the songs actually mean, and that's audible in his voice, and everyone else is at best an interpreter. This is a hugely important distinction. Gyro's idea of a surrogate Dylan is ludicrous and unnecessary.
I'd rather hear Bob sing them than anyone at all. But that's just me. ( and nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell. )

buzzbabyjesus said...

I've been doing research on those third rate Dylan albums I was complaining about without even hearing. From what I've read "Self Portrait" is generally considered one of the worst.
I listened to "Copper Kettle", "All The Tired Horses", and "Days of 49". I liked them all but this is the one:

Next stop:

"Shot Of Love"

charlie c. said...

I was not aware the Duquesne Whistle was penned by Robert Hunter. Silvio notwithstanding, when Dylan has someone write some lyrics or partners with a lyricist - you gotta sit up and take notice. THat's why I enjoyed Together Through Life which was overshadowed by the Christmas CD release. Let's let Zimmy tell it: “Hunter is an old buddy, we could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there... He's got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”

buzzbabyjesus said...

Here's "Keys To The Rain" from Robert Hunter's first solo album, "Tales Of The Great Rum Runners", released in 1974.

buzzbabyjesus said...

As promised I looked into "Shot Of Love", another one of Bob's albums with apparently few admirers.
"Every Grain Of Sand" is a good one, but "In The Summertime" gets my vote.

Next stop:

"Knocked Out Loaded"

Anonymous said...

buzz...FWIW, he didn't write "Days of '49," though I agree with you; it's always been my favorite track on Self Portrait (well, that and "Wigwam").

buzzbabyjesus said...

I'm well aware that Bob didn't write "Days Of 49". My quest is to find listenable songs amongst his worst albums.

Apparently there aren't any on "Knocked Out Loaded". The contenders were "Driftin' Too Far From The Shore", destroyed by inexplicable 'chipmunk vocals', and "Brownsville Girl", co-written with Sam Shepard, and marred by a Phil Spectorish 'wall of sound'.

The best I can come up with is an outtake from his previous, and equally unloved album "Empire Burlesque".

Here is "Danville Girl", the original girl from Brownsville.

Next stop: "Saved"

buzzbabyjesus said...

You can tell which Dylan albums have the fewest fans by the number of songs uploaded to Youtube.
"Saved" has no representation, except for this spirited live version of the title track.

BTW "Duquense Whistle" has grabbed me.

I'm not sure how many more of these "bad" Dylan albums I'm going to check out. Next week is a different subject.

Arrivisto said...

On "Tempest", I've found two excerpts that sound just like Al Pacino in "The Godfather(s): "You broke my heart" (GF2) on "Narrow Way", and "They drag you back" (GF3) on "Early Roman Kings". Which begs the question: is there a quote from GF1 on "Tempest"?