In 45 verses and no chorus, “Tempest” tells the story of the sinking of the Titanic, set to an enchanting Irish melody, featuring the violin playing of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, who also plays accordion and guitar on the album, which was recorded in Jackson Browne’s Los Angeles studio. It alone exemplifies Bob Dylan’s genius, who inevitably has to go down in history and one of the most remarkable musical artists in American history. The singer-songwriter has been an influential figure in popular music for more than five decades. Here is a man making relevant music at a time when we’re writing eulogies for artist his age and younger. Going back to Dylan’s six-minute single “Like a Rolling Stone,” which has been described as radically altering the parameters of popular music in 1965, here we are almost 50 years later and the guy is still at it. Nevertheless, I should caution you to be ready to take good with the bad, because not the songs on his new album “Tempest” measurably measures up to the star’s statue.
“I’m searching for phrases / To sing your praises,” sings Bob Dylan on “Soon After Midnight” the second track on his latest album, “Tempest.” I can relate. While many of the phrases that come to mind after hearing “Tempest” do not exactly befit a legend, adding to a 50-year-old conversation about a man who is arguably the greatest songwriter of all time is an unenviable proposition, even in light of a new album.
Produced again by Dylan’s alter ego Jack Frost, “Tempest” more or less retains the stylistic preoccupations of every Dylan album since 1997′s Time Out Of Mind. This means mushy production, 12-bar blues, and lots of accordion (courtesy, again, of the great David Hidalgo). Also front and center is Dylan’s increasingly ragged voice, a demonic death rattle which has now taken on the quality of oil crackling in a frying pan, presented on ”Tempest” with all the close-mic’d intimacy of an obscene phone call. The cliché that Dylan “can’t sing” has always been as inaccurate as it is familiar — if the quality of Dylan’s voice is dubitable, his pitch, which is perfect, is not. Still, there are songs on “Tempest” that make you wish he’d just clear his throat already.
The mix also does these songs no favors. Like Tom Waits, Dylan has always had great taste in guitar players, and he stocks “Tempest” with welcome recurring characters like Hidalgo, Stu Kimball, and Charlie Sexton. But unlike Waits, Dylan favors production that too frequently forsakes imaging for a spontaneous ‘live’ sound, cheating the songs out of any vividness they might have had. The loudest sounds on “Tempest” are Dylan’s voice and George G. Receli’s drums, while everything else merely provides a palette.
And that’s a shame, because many of these songs are superb. The banjo-and-fiddle-augmented “Scarlet Town” nods to “Red River Shore” in more than just its title, with a similarly beautiful lamentation on lost love and missed opportunities, while jaunty opening track, “Duequesne Whistle,” nods more to Satchmo than Woody Guthrie. Stylistic variations like these also tether many of these songs to Dylan’s earlier work: “Scarlet Town” boasts a minor-key melancholy that takes us all the way back to “Ballad Of A Thin Man”; “Long and Wasted Years” is pure Basement Tapes ruckus; and a few tunes could have fit comfortably on the underrated Infidels, with “Pay In Blood” echoing the fractious rock of “Neighborhood Bully,” and “Soon After Midnight” updating the tender and irresistible “Sweetheart Like You.” Even stranger, the slow, cascading arrangement of “Long And Wasted Years” is an unexpected attempt at indie-baroque that would give The Decemberists pause.
While the elliptical Dylan, who effortlessly metes out lyrics of apocalyptic exhortations and scathing barbs, has of late given way to addressing old-man concerns like long and narrow roads, train whistles blowing, and adulterous women, his historically keen eye is mostly still sharp. “Tempest” also finds the septuagenarian Dylan a little frisky. We learn on the caffeinated “Narrow Way” that Zimmy would like to bury his face between the breasts of a “well-stacked woman”; he laments the loss of a “flat-chested junkie whore” on “Scarlet Town,” and admits on “Early Roman Kings” that he’s totally willing to “make love to a bitch or a hag.” Perhaps sad-eyed ladies and Scorpio sphinxes in calico dresses are in shorter supply in this, the Age of Snooki.
The album’s second half isn’t as successful. The bouncy-but-brooding “Tin Angel” is a quixotic account of a vengeful cuckold that ends in a triple murder-suicide more reminiscent of a police blotter entry than a murder ballad. The title track is a shuffling chanty about the Titanic that’s as uninteresting as it is long, and if the idea of Dylan writing a song about the Titanic (it even name-checks, er, Leonardo DiCaprio, and I will hence bear a grudge against Dylan for forcing me to add a spell-check of the name ‘DiCaprio’ to my browser history) seems about 15 years late, take a gander at “Tempest‘s” abominable cover art, which has all the aesthetic charm of the sort of smooth-jazz compilation CD that chokes Wal Mart bargain bins nationwide. “Roll On John” is another in the long line of rock-stars-commemorating-each-other songs, and ends the album on an uncharacteristically plodding note.
I’ll leave the connotations of the title to the more Shakespeare-inclined. But it’s difficult to imagine this album resonating with either the heretofore unconverted or very many persons under the age of 30. First single “Early Roman Kings” certainly isn’t the first song to lift the lick from “Mannish Boy,” but it’s a questionable choice given that most contemporary listeners will more readily associate the riff with George Thorogood than Muddy Waters.Tempest, more than any previous album in his discography, darkly positions Dylan as poet-poltergeist, and if that’s too unsettling a thought to fathom in 2012, wait till you actually hear it.
When listeners evaluate Dylan’s new record, “Tempest,” now in stores, nothing he did as a game-changing artist back in the 1960s should matter. He’s neither the same man nor the same artist. Yet Dylan is such a towering cultural figure, his influence so vast and deep, that it’s almost impossible to listen to any of his recent efforts without comparing them to his many remarkable lyrical moments from back in the day. “Tempest” comes 50 years after Columbia Records, Dylan’s longtime recording home, released his self-titled debut in the spring of ’62.
Bob Dylan is a totemic figure in musical history and remains hard at work fashioning that totem, restlessly and lovingly. From Time Out of Mind to Love and Theft to Modern Times to the ravishing 2008 Tell Tale Signs compilation—in my mind, the finest of them all—the past decade and a half has seen some of the finest work of Bob Dylan’s career, and Tempest is no exception. Someday his obituary will flatly defy credulity, but for now we can only hope that day comes—to quote another Beatle—many years from now. During an episode of his sadly defunct Theme Time Radio HourDylan once introduced a record by the harmonica player Jerry McCain thusly: “He once heard Little Walter play, and it changed his life forever. Music used to do that.” Tempest suggests that at 71 years old, Bob Dylan still thinks it can, and he may be right.