Dylan continues his Americana exploration with 'Tempest'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
As common as the cardboard stock of a record cover, every Bob Dylan album since 2001 comes complete with an array of critics and champions. He's either the revitalized troubadour carrying his great legacy into his golden years, or he's a curmudgeon trapped in old world nostalgia. His new collection, Tempest, has carried the same boasts and cries, but the truth of quality likely lies somewhere between the two extremes.
Dylan has become firmly entrenched in performing his music with the air of a classic blues shuffle. But here, he is rejuvenated by this classic, swinging sound more than ever before, as if New Orleans jazz bands of the 1930s could plug in. The blues actually becomes secondary on this record; apart from the Muddy Waters stomp of "Early Roman Kings," the album primarily focuses on a feel and rhythm that went out of style at least 60 years ago.
But Dylan has never been as much of a historian as he has been a revivalist. As has been expressed in his music the past 15 years and his choices when running his XM radio show, Dylan believes that music is fluid and the old songs are just as new as the new songs. Music isn't a timeline so much as it is a circle, and any part of the circle can be relevant.
So here he is, with the winds introducing "Duquesne Whistle" to give Tempest the swinging feel that it will carry throughout its nearly 70-minute running time. His voice, still as gravelly as ever, is actually a little more refined and controlled than it has been in years, perhaps a nod to the singers of old he so admires.
But within this context of classic American music and making all that was old new, Dylan is still the incredible lyricist, turning phrases on a dime like only he has, at once funny and poignant. "Narrow Way" has a typical, nearly abstract view on relationships presented through the prism of contemporary issues, while "Long and Wasted Years" spins a tale of a disintegrated friendship through casual resignation. The truly nasty stuff is reserved for "Pay in Blood," which finds him living the life of a career criminal telling his story for whomever will listen.
The press and buzz for the album has mostly centered around the title track, a 13-minute exposition on the sinking of the Titanic that many have lumped with his 1976 opus "Joey." While it doesn't much sound like or resemble that song, a bizarre affirmation of gangster Joey Gallo, "Tempest" instead plays as a kind of oral history, a minstrel's tale of the sinking of the great ship, the passengers discovering the water filling, the smokestacks toppling and the characters who fled for their life and lived to tell the tale.
Again, it's a nod to an earlier time. Those epic songs detailing the great disasters and victories of yore as the singer crooned in front of the house band were once a staple of Americana, and since Dylan sees music as fluid rather than trapped in time, he's brought back that element as well. It's another piece that furthers his musical vision, just as important as his early dedication to folk and later forays into blues, country and pop.
Dylan is nearly always on his game when he's completely committed to his project. With Tempest, he has driven deeper into this sound with lyrics impressive enough to carry the songs out of quaint nostalgia into something meaningful. If it doesn't measure up as a complete triumph, any meaningful Dylan record is worth a listen or three.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org