Album Review: Bob Dylan ‘Tempest’

It isn’t easy to review a living legend, because there is a small part of me that might want to go easy on Bob Dylan. After all, I am probably not qualified to offer criticism to a man who surely knows a bit more about music than I do. Even if I find fault with these songs, I’m likely to discover a way to enjoy them before I assume Bob Dylan has lost the plot.

Dylan is actually a particular challenge, because his music only has to be good enough to set the right tone and act as a vehicle for his poetry. Don’t get me wrong, he’s had some great and even quite catchy songs, but more often than not the music itself isn’t going to be as revelatory as the lyrics.

With all of this in mind, I decided to read Tempest before I listened to it.

These songs tell tales of fiction and fantasy, but also biography and nostalgia. Bob’s personal stories frame the image of a man looking back with satisfaction as he approaches the end of an accomplished and interesting life. His fiction– we hope it’s fiction– speaks of death and blood, bitter lovers, and whole cities gone mad.

“Tin Angel” is the story of a torrid affair involving a woman unable to choose between her lovers, until one of them makes the decision for her– with a pistol. She responds likewise. As fantastically grim as it is, the message, to relate back to the less murderous among us, is that sometimes we can’t have everything we want without putting it all at risk.

I’d have given you the stars and the planets too
But what good would these things do you?
Bow the heart if not the knee
Or never again this world you’ll see

When I listened to these songs for the first time after having read the stories, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed. While the music isn’t particularly inventive, it is effective no less at setting that all important tone for each tale Bob weaves. The deep bass on “Tin Angel” is thick, dark and muddy, a perfect fit for a terrible tale, and for a poetic brand of storytelling no longer common in popular music.

Bob Dylan’s voice has both improved and degraded with age, depending on your perspective. His was never a very pretty singer to begin with, so the addition of a dump truck of gravel and grit should only have greater impact for most fans. He was always an old soul, so these themes and his style are well suited to an old voice. Still, it’s hard to find being off key very charming, and he misses the mark in that regard more than a few times.

The first single, “Duquesne Whistle” is a simple song about traveling America and being an old man version of Bob Dylan. “Soon After Midnight” is soft and whimsical, but I think it comes too early here to have an impact and would have fit better a little later on in the album’s run.

The darker songs are the most interesting to me. “Pay In Blood” is moody and caked in crimson, and “Scarlet Town” is a perfect follow-up which continues and builds upon the carefully set atmosphere. The sounds here are very familiar, but rich enough to be interesting even if you feel you might have heard them before.

“Tempest,” the title track, clocks in at a surprising 13:54, and doesn’t seem to evolve at all through its near fourteen minutes. An important song to Bob and this record, but it’s a whole lot of time spent in one place, and however good the poetry may be it is a bit of a slog.

The album ends with “Roll On John,” a tribute to John Lennon that focuses heavily on the night he died. It’s an interesting choice for the closer to the album, and shows the deep respect Bob Dylan has for other artists cut from some of the same cloth.

Slow down, you’re moving way too fast
Come together right now over me
Your bones are weary / You’re about to breathe your last
Lord, you know how hard that it can be

Tempest is a very strong album for Bob Dylan, and I don’t think I had to grant him any concessions at all to come to that conclusion. The poetry is there– it is moving and provocative– and the music is, well, good enough to get the job done.

Release Date: September 11, 2012
Image Courtesy of Columbia

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