September 12, 2012

Test Spins: Bob Dylan, Tempest

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How exactly does one even begin to write a Bob Dylan review? Now well into the fifth decade of his career, Dylan isn’t just a musician, artist, writer, legend or even an icon; he is an entity all his own, void of any label, resistant to any criticism. He has never made a “bad” album; calling a Dylan album “bad” merely validates his “good” ones as masterpieces. More than 50 years, 35 studio albums and countless personas since he so generously graced the world with his presence, Dylan maintains a Godlike status: He is untouchable, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, just as we simultaneously know everything and nothing about him. Whatever he does, we don’t expect anything less than genius.

So where does that leave Dylan’s latest release, Tempest, next to the other master works in his blues-poetry canon? Well, at the ripe age of 71, Dylan isn’t exactly at a point at which he can grow artistically more than he already has, but his creative deadlock is just where he belongs. Sticking with the electric-blues arrangements and effortless poetry that solidified Dylan’s aforementioned Godlike presence in the music world, Tempest is proof that he’s still got it after all this time, and he’s right where the fans want him. Tempest is nothing new, but it’s further evidence of Dylan doing what he does best: constructing timeless songs that are at once both colossally epic in their storytelling and breathtakingly romantic in their simplicity.

Dylan is known for touching on many genres across his vast catalog, and Tempest is no exception. From the ragtime blues opener “Duquesne Whistle” to the rollicking toe-tapper “Narrow Way,” Dylan covers several musical bases here. He goes full-on blues on “Early Roman Kings” with a standard 12-bar progression spiced with harmonica solos and sprinkled with Biblical references. “Scarlet Town” finds Dylan as a mysterious drifter telling his tale to whoever will listen.

But the grandness of nearly every song on Tempest is where we find the record’s greatest flaw. Clocking in at 68 minutes, this is probably one of Dylan’s longer albums; but unlike his lengthy songs from the past (most notably, of course, the six-minute “Like a Rolling Stone” or the 11-minute “Desolation Row”), Dylan loses the listener’s attention this time around. “Narrow Way,” for instance, drags on due in great part to an irritatingly repetitive electric violin riff that doesn’t seem to end. Likewise, the delirious title track, a 13-minute epic interspersed with references to the real-life Titanic tragedy as well as the 1997 blockbuster starring Leonardo DiCaprio (who also happens to get name-dropped here), suffers the same flaw of “Narrow Way,” in addition to Dylan’s vocals, which have aged quite ungracefully. Dylan fans have persevered with the master’s voice, but by now it is difficult to simply decipher the words. Whether one can blame Tempest’s few flaws on uninspired instrumentation, Dylan’s grating cords or his lousy enunciation, it’s clear (but unsurprising) that the fervor that characterized Dylan’s most famous works has waned.

The ballads on Tempest, though, are where the record truly shines, thanks mostly to the lyrics that hark back to some of Dylan’s finest moments as a young songwriter. “Soon After Midnight” contains some of Dylan’s most romantic lyrics in recent memory, as the track opens with the gorgeous line, “I’m searching for phrases / To sing your praises.” Meanwhile, the heartbreaking “Long and Wasted Years” reminds us of his Blood on the Tracks days, as its simultaneous self-deprecating and confrontational lyrics take us back to that album’s “Idiot Wind.” Closing dirge “Roll on John,” an ode to John Lennon, has Dylan yearning for Lennon to “shine your light,” ending the record on a stunningly moving note. It’s not just a tribute to Dylan’s onetime friend and contemporary, but also a soulful and touching sentiment from a universally adored artist reaching his prime of life. Tempest is rumored to be Dylan’s final work, as it shares a title similar to Shakespeare’s last play, but what does it matter? Even in the Internet age, Dylan still manages to keep us in suspense, never sure of what he’s going to do next, where he’s going or who he’ll be next time he emerges. But that’s the beauty of being a Dylan fan, and the twists and turns of Tempest celebrate that spontaneity.

Original Author: Sydney Ramsden