A Vivoscene Feature Review by Brian Miller
Vivoscene rating 8.5
Bob Dylan‘s latest album, Tempest, is a stellar piece of work, demonstrating conclusively that a writer’s greatest achievements often occur past the age of 60, and yes, even beyond the age of 70. This year (2012), Dylan celebrates an unprecedented 50 years in the record business, and by that we mean 50 productive years. He remains the best songwriter of his time, perhaps the best ever, showing no signs of letting up. His output has been both spectacular and uneven, with albums that rank as the best rock and roll of all-time (in Highway 61 Revisited), the best folk of all time (with The Times They Are A-Changin’), the best country album of all time (John Wesley Harding, which is generally not regarded as country at all, but is as country as it gets) and the most self-indulgent of all time (there a few candidates in his canon, notably Self-Portrait, Budokan, Under The Red Sky and Knocked Out Loaded). His records are often rather rushed affairs, his live performances can be startling in their execution, and the sound of his voice proves challenging occasionally even for diehard fans. But there is no one like him, and he’s been a source of inspiration for countless musicians over many decades. Those who follow his work often have a dozen or two dozen of his albums in their libraries. The question about his new albums is always, “what makes this one worth owning when Dylan already commands a substantial presence in many musos’ collections?”
Well, for starters there’s the title tune “Tempest”, a drawn-out affair recounting the sinking of the Titanic, in this, the 100th anniversary of that tragic event. “Tempest” is the most evocative account of a sinking at sea since Gordon Lightfoot’s renowned “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald”. Dylan’s offering is old-timey with an abcb rhyme scheme, simplicity in itself, with a narrative that gathers pathos, lament and unending grief. It’s a major achievement that renders full use of his writing talent, being far more than reportage about an event so well-known one might think nothing new could be said about it. Not so, not in the hands of the land-locked native of Hibbing, Minnesota. The fiddle music on this track is pleasing, persuasive and reflective.
And as for the leadoff single, “Duquesne Whistle”, it’s a hard-driving number that might have been written anytime in the past 50 years. In fact, as Dylan ages he has forged a unique blend of blues, rock and folk that defies traditional genre classifications. And he is taking much more care in the studio than on many past occasions, seeking I believe, to incorporate such obscure influences as Pee Wee Crayton, Junior Wells and Junior Parker. There’s the same sort of musicality to “Duquesne Whistle” as exists in Junior Parker’s “Pretty Baby” as well as Crayton’s “Do Unto Others”.
Another standout track on this new album is “Long and Wasted Years”. It’s simply one of his best melodies in years, and the language of lost and bitter love is magnificent. “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”. This tune alone is worth the price of the album.
A few critics have commented on the high body count on this record. This is an album with a surprising mix of death and vitriol, particularly in the title track and in “Pay In Blood” (“I’ll pay in blood, but not my own”), which is Dylan’s most bitter attack on his enemies since his polemic against the press years ago with “Idiot Wind”. However, that mix is counterbalanced by the innate musicality of all of the tracks, as well the truly delightful rocker “Early Roman Kings”. It’s got a “Hoochie Coochie Man” beat that is irresistible, and an accordion fill that delivers nothing but sonic bliss.
Many of these tracks should be recorded by others in the future. That would dispel the chronic and ill-deserved sentiments over the state of Dylan’s aging voice and reveal the true beauty of many of these compositions. As for me, Dylan’s voice is not a detriment: I like and admire “the gravel in his guts and the spit in his eye” (to quote Dylan’s idol, Johnny Cash).
In Dylan’s own words “I ain’t dead yet/ and my bell still rings.”