Bob Dylan has befuddled his critics. Some of the early reviews of “Tempest” couldn’t stand the avalanche of reviews that proclaim this new project as a work of pure Dylan genius. As I site here listening to his brilliance, eyes watered, I can’t help but to imagine that there is a song for everyone on this album. For me, “Long and Wasted Years” resonated deep within my soul. When a songwriter gets it right, their music can make you cry. Dylan can do just that; his genius brings out the force of emotion to the point where it becomes visible to others. No sense in trying to hold the tears back, because you can’t; not with Dylan. Nina Simone singing “Do What You Gotta Do” used to do it. Leonard Cohen did it with “Chelsea Hotel” at the Beacon Theater. Buddy Miles with “Down By The River,” OK, I’m a bit of a crier … but this is different. I’m sitting alone, smiling, with Kleenex, thanks to this old codger’s swagger, his audacity, his warmth.
“Last night I heard you talking in your sleep,
Saying things you shouldn’t say,
Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”
That he even dares to write this at 71 makes my day. That he pulls it off on his new album, “Tempest,” well, it seems that it makes me so happy that I cry.
What exactly do we hope for from a new Dylan album these days? Well, if we’re honest, we wish there were less of them and we hope that they can be OK, with a couple of songs we might add to our playlist. It only takes him making something vaguely reminiscent of “Blood on the Tracks” for Rolling Stone to give it five stars. We desperately want to hang on to our Dylan persona, and we don’t want it replaced by a wiry old troubadour in a matador hat. Frankly, it is always more convenient if our heroes die relatively young. Well, old Bob is an inconvenient truth, and the truth is he doesn’t have what he had in 1965, or 1974. He knows it. We all saw that “60 Minutes” interview. And much as we may have wanted him to, he doesn’t want to stop. So he finds ways to move forward. And his idea of a Bob Dylan for 2012 is pretty great, if you ask me.
He can still put words together as well as he’s ever done post-1966. He’s still as brilliant and as careless with his rhyme as he ever was. He can still deliver these lines like no one else. His voice has less strength, but he knows it and he has adapted. His band is fantastic. No wonder he also seems comfortable in his own skin, maybe for the first time.
“My heart is cheerful, it’s never fearful,
I’ve been down on the killing floors,
I’m in no great hurry, I’m not afraid of your fury,
I’ve faced stronger walls than yours.”
(From “Soon After Midnight” )
Dylan has been playing around with his take on western swing since his first self-produced (that’s right — Jack Frost is Bob) album made with his touring band, “Love and Theft,” and the format suits his late-found taste for whimsy, not to mention his current dress sense. I’ve enjoyed this development but it did not prepare me for “Duquesne Whistle,” which opens “Tempest” — he and his band take that swing and they rock it and roll it and make a big old joyous racket. It’s a simple pop song with great hooks and Bob has never, in recent memory, sung better. Never has he sounded more like he’s having fun. (OK, maybe the Basement Tapes.) It’s infectious and I can’t stop playing it.
Next should be “Early Roman Kings,” and by chance that’s the way I heard it. Yes, for once iTunes enhanced my listening experience. Accidentally. This is a giant among songs and like its forefather “Highway 61,” it’s set to a simple blues, in this case the relentless riff of Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man,” and like “Highway 61” it’s a relentless lyrical riff on a phrase Bob liked the sound of. Who wouldn’t?
“All the early Roman kings,
In their shark skin suits,
Bow ties and buttons,
High top boots,
Driving the spikes in,
Blazing the rails,
Nailed in their coffins,
In top hats and tails,
Fly away over,
Fly away flap your wings,
Fly by night,
Like the early Roman kings…
…They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers,
They buy and they sell,
They destroyed your city,
They’ll destroy you as well,
They’re lecherous and treacherous,
A-Hell bent for leather,
Each of ‘em bigger,
Than all men put together,
Sluggers and muggers,
Wearing fancy gold rings,
All the women going crazy,
For the early Roman kings.”
What does all of that mean? To ask is to miss the point entirely. Listen and enjoy a grand master of the English language at work.
I’d heard just these two songs before iTunes hits me with “Long and Wasted Years,” and you know what happens next. This song is gorgeous. The band are the perfect mix of energy and restraint. Everyone over 40 who has ever loved anyone should hear it. I just listened again. I’m a wreck.
Musically, there is no new ground covered here, but it is an exercise in beauty and refinement from a band with no weakness. They are alive and awake to Bob, they support the songs. The soloing is exactly as it should be, and as it should be there is almost none. “Tin Angel” is worthy of note here — a grizzly murder ballad over a single two-bar riff repeating for nine minutes without a single noodle thrown in. Eat your heart out, Bad Seeds. It does actually sound like Bob has been listening to Nick Cave on a couple of occasions — particularly the haunting “Scarlett Town” — another ballad. Bob is indeed on a ballad kick.
There are 10 songs on “Tempest” and they add up to more than an hour of music. It is too much, in my mind, to call a single album (it’s almost as long as “Blonde on Blonde”), but remove the two (awfully) weak links and it’s 47 minutes. Near perfect. Which brings us to genius. You just can’t have the smooth without the rough from a proper genius left to his own devices. Genius always oversteps, reaches too high, fails to notice glaring errors, because it isn’t afraid of failure. And 1964-66 excepted, there isn’t a Dylan album without a weak track or two. Here we have a 13-minute Irish folk ballad on the sinking of the Titanic (which lost me after four minutes) and a truly awful sentimental eulogy to Lennon, the less said about the better. I’m sure Tom Wilson would have made this into a near perfect collection, but he’s not around — and who today could possibly tell Dylan what to do?
So there you have it. The old Bob Dylan is a flawed genius just like the young one was. What is odd, though, he sounds, today, if anything, more full of life, happier to take on all comers, than he ever was. He sounds like a man who loves his day job. How great is that at 71?