Bob Dylan’s latest album, “Tempest”, his 57th (counting live albums and Columbia’s “Bootleg” series), is as comfortable as an old shoe, and for all the right reasons. It’s not like there’s no surprises: he’s as inscrutable as ever, at one point offering the fourteen minute title song about the Titanic, a sea chantey that’s as much about the movie as the original trusty disaster, but somehow the album remains afloat (and I say that as a known despiser of sea chanteys.)
There’s other lengthy disaster songs on here, too, all sung in Dylan’s current hard won “Groggy Went A’ Courtin’” croak. As always, Bob dares us to hate him, and the list of dusky and questionable ingredients could easily lead to big time suckitude. So how does the end result end up being so delightful, especially after so many rides on this particular merry go round?
Magic and wizardry is about all I can venture, though it bears mentioning that this band he’s been playing with the last decade or so is possibly his best ever, and it’s not like he hasn’t played with some fairly passable bands before. The sure handed air of confidence he brings to everything he does lately helps some, too -you don’t often get to hear people who know exactly what they’re doing as much as this guy. Even when he’s just sawed off a big limb he’s gone way out on, you just know he’ll have a happy landing -he’s gotten to be sort of the Wily Coyote of American song.
And, man, when everything’s working, you just can’t beat him. The opening track, “Duquesne Whistle”, is such an occasion: starts off like an old 78, and then kicks in with an easy going groove that’s just pure freedom -you could listen to it all day. “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’” -sounds great! Who knows what he’s singing about? Who cares? It’s like a rickity old freight train on a velvet pillow. It’s not the lyric, it’s the gorgeous sound of the words the old bastard’s singing over that percolating, chugging little rhythm section and that great guitar riff -perfection.
And co-written by Robert Hunter?!? What th’?
I don’t care about lyrics that much, I just care about a great line every now and then that rises out of the muck to tickle my imagination while I revel in the sound and in the feel, and if there’s actual ideas in there, something different and somehow intriguing, well, at this point that verges on the miraculous. I’m really more of a melody guy, and it sort of seems like on his last few albums, elder Bob has developed a growing respect for melody, something he’s rarely been any slouch at to begin with. Actually, that’s a dumb thing to say, he’s always written amazing melodies; it’s just that lately, as a singer he seems to stick closer to the bare bones of the melody -he’s singing simpler, and letting the melody do the work.
And, god, how do you explain that voice, that phrasing? To be getting as much out of the pipes he’s got left is just so fascinating in itself, and now you get the usual plethora of interesting choices (most of the best ones possibly dictated by the writing) plus an increasing large dollop of discipline and even reserve, which at this point sometimes feels like another insidious trick to maintain the mystery inherent in all things Bob-ish.
The songs are a really strong, strangely coherent bunch -it all sounds like the same guy on the same day. For the most part, the album starts with the best song, “Duquesne Whistle” , and then a whole bunch of other great ones, generally going slowly downhill, reaching it’s nadir on “Tempest”, which, again, still isn’t half bad for a sea chantey. I mean even that one doesn’t make me want to kill myself or anything. Even surrounded by other really long dirges -the one that follows it, for instance, “Roll On”, which is really gorgeous… I don’t know, the album just sort of drifts off, but for some reason it just works. The whole thing. You can totally listen to the whole damn thing multiple times -crazy, man!
Could easily be one of his best. It’s my favorite since “Love and Theft”- high praise! Love it.
Makes no sense. Magic.
In the allmusic.com guide under album themes, the themes listed for “Tempest” are: Guys Night Out, Late Night, Road Trip, Hanging Out, and (naturally), Reflection. I really don’t think I could have said it better myself. It’s nice to have help with stuff like this, and I vow to pay more attention to the allmusic theme listings from now on. Thanks, Bob -you gave me that, too!
Originally published at In Review Online