Review of Bob Dylan’s Tempest
I pretty much feel the same way about Bob Dylan that I do about Arrested Development (the TV show, not the rap group), which is to say that I enjoy both quite a bit, but I’ve never understood the insane levels of worship that either has received. This inevitably frustrates a lot of people, but while I like a lot of Bob Dylan’s work, I’ve never fully gotten what makes him the Greatest Songwriter Ever, as so many have dubbed him.
That’s not to say I don’t like the guy, though, and really, there a lot of things to admire about Dylan. One of which is his longevity. He’s about 45 years removed from his best loved works, and he’s still putting out eminently listenable albums. The latest of which, Tempest was released this week, and it’s yet another success for a man who’s songwriting skills have gone remarkably undiminished with age.
The best way to describe Tempest would be to say that it feels a combination of his last two albums, 2006′s Modern Times, and 2009′s Together Through life (note: I’m ignoring the Christmas album he made because that’s something we should all just forget). Naturally, it’s a bit worse than the former, but considerably better than the latter. Any fear that he was beginning to decline after Together Through Life has been thoroughly subdued.
The album begins with a decidedly old-timey vibe on “Duquesne Whistle,” which wouldn’t feel out of place in a Humphrey Bogart film from the 40s. This sort of feel has been constant in Dylan’s work ever since Modern Times. It’s like sometime in the mid 2000s, Dylan just decided that in his world, it was 1942, and no one could tell him otherwise.
From there we get the moody, romantic “Soon After Midnight.” This song is a bit like “Life Is Hard” off Together Through Life. Neither song is much of a lyrical display, but both succeed through atmosphere, giving the mood of a desperate longing for love. On tunes like these, Dylan is more effective with what he doesn’t say.
“Narrow Way” is a typical lengthy bluesy number. Dylan has been cranking these out for years, from “Tombstone Blues” off Highway 61 Revisited to “Rollin and Tumblin” off Modern Times. These are rarely the best songs on his albums, but they’re always entertaining, even if they’ve grown a bit predictable.
The first few tracks are all fine enough, but things don’t really get going until “Pay In Blood,” a dark, menacing number, where Dylan’s raspier-than-usual voice actually becomes a strength. Much like Tom Waits, the palpable grit and grime in Dylan’s vocals on this track allow him to get the point across more effectively. It’s like Bob is taking you into his sinister underground world.
“Scarlet Town,” and “Early Roman Kings” are the type of story songs that Dylan has always enjoyed. Either one would fit in comfortably on John Wesley Harding. On songs like these, it feels like Dylan is basically giving us a history lesson. Luckily, his penchant for clever turns of phrase, and the occasional embellishment make him an excellent teacher.
His lengthiest lesson comes on the 14-minute title track, which is an epic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic. As entertaining as these songs can be, he probably could have trimmed about 5 minutes off this one, and everything would’ve been just fine. As adept a storyteller as Dylan is, when a song has the same melody for 14 straight minutes, without even the slightest digression, things are bound to get a bit repetitive.
Still, that’s a minor gripe, and for the most part this is a very strong album. The closer, “Roll On John,” is a thoughtful tribute to John Lennon, where rather than pondering what he could’ve done with more time, he simply thanks the late Beatle for what he was able to give us while he was here.
Even if I’ll never completely understand what makes Bob Dylan a god to so many, I will happily admit that he is a very talented songwriter, who can make even the simplest tales seem captivating. Dylan is still churning out strong albums at 71, and he shows no sign of stopping. He’s one of those people who has a desperate need to create, and with any luck, he’ll stay that way for as long as he’s on this earth.