I've bought each new Dylan album, except for Christmas in The Heart (which may not have been released in South Africa) since 2006, which is more than I did in respect of his precious output, especially the Eighties stuff. With Modern Times (2006) and Together through Life (2009) my first impression was of an immediate thrill, soon followed by a feeling of being let down. On repeated listening the songs just did not seem compelling. The Dylan voice was ragged and hoarse to an almost uncomfortable degree; it was a distraction. The lyrics were trite and perhaps deliberately clichéd to the nth degree. The music saved the day. The band was sharp, worked the groove and obviously knew the blues and American roots music backwards and was not afraid to have fun with it.
Dylan is now past 70, and like his peers, The Stones, is still rolling and still rocking. The Stones will release their new product this November. They too, have made music over past couple of decades that can rock quite well but seems lyrically trite and almost rock by numbers. They have really gotten good at what they do yet lost their edge, resulting in music that no longer has any real spark or vitality.
The first point of interest about Tempest is that Dylan's voice starts out almost rehabilitated, with only an echo of the discomfiting rasp of earlier albums yet over the length of the album, as if it had been sequentially recorded in real time, the voice deteriorates and by the end of the record the sandpaper vocals are in full effect.
The opening track, "Duquesne Wind", is also in its way the most interesting performance here, featuring an old timey string band sound, jaunty and joyous, that reminded me of the spirit of John Wesley Harding, if not the actual sound, and I was wondering whether this would be Dylan's take on old-fashioned hillbilly country music, much as Neil Young's Prairie Wind was. The string band soon makes way for the electric band and we are more or less back with the blues tropes Dylan has relied on so much over the last six years. In fact, "Early Roman Kings" has a stop time riff similar to "Hoochie Coochie Man" or "Mannish Boy".
Most of the songs are quite long, and seem over-long, with lots of verses and relying on a relentless groove to push them along. The title track is by far the longest, being over 13 minutes, in the tradition of "Desolation Row" and "Brownsville Girl", because Dylan has a tale to tell and wants to take his time about it.
My first impression was that I liked this album, and probably more than Together through Life. Modern Times was great and Tempest could be a companion piece. Who knows whether Dylan sees these records as part of the same body of work, or as unique each time out? In the Sixties and early Seventies he was restless and, like a lot of artists of the time, did not want to be categorised, boxed in or stultified and progression was the name of the game to the extent that each album was to be different from the one before and each album had to break new ground and almost alienate the fans of the preceding one.
On closer listen the main positive about the album is that the music is engaging and highly joyous. The main negative is that the songs tend to sound the same and do not have discernibly variations in tune.
Today Dylan is apparently more careful to retain continuity from record to record and there is no progression in any real sense from Modern Times to Tempest. I've not heard Time Out Of Mind or Love & Theft or much of the preceding output from the Nineties and so I cannot tell whether Dylan has been treading water over the last 20 years but I would believe that he may well have been. It kind of comes with the aging process.
Like Neil Young, Dylan writes a lot of songs but releases more selectively, where Young still puts out a record a year. To my mind Dylan's most innovative work since about 1990, has to be the two solo acoustic blues albums he released early in the Nineties. The voice was still good though heading towards the one we know today and his selection of covers was excellent and the performances energised and full of the vigour his studio releases during the Eighties, for all their studio polish and sheen, lacked.
I do own a lot of Dylan's music but I am not a completist and have pretty much avoided everything between Blood on The Tracks and Modern Times, except for the Unplugged album and Good As You've Been To Me, one of the acoustic albums. Of course I would like to hear most of the unknown records but I doubt that I would want to spend money on them simply for that pleasure.
Lots of rock critics have written a lot about Dylan, such as Greil Marcus and his tomes on "Like A Rolling Stone" and The Basement Tapes, and Michael Gray, Paul Williams and Clinton Heylin, but my challenge to Marcus would be to do for the gospel period Dylan what he did for The Basement Tapes, whether or not he can get the born again religious fervour. Surely that period and that body of work are worth examining too? Anyhow, I am of the opinion that not much beyond Desire is worth examining in depth.
Dylan has become an elder statesman; the guy who made us believe that rock lyrics could be more literate than the triteness of pop lyrics. Now he has nothing left to prove and nothing much that is new to dazzle us with. He does what he does with an easy facility; perhaps too easy. Some of his songs sound like he made them up while he was singing them. He can still slip in any number of mystical, mythical or reality based allusions, references and quotes. Yet the overall effect, as is the case nowadays with Neil Young, is of a lyricist who delights in the banal, possibly ironically and mordantly so, and therefore ostensibly is now no different to the traditional pop lyric that he supposedly put to shame. The art has given way to the craft.
I suppose, if one is once a genius, that you are always a genius. To my mind, though, there is not much of the genius present in the recent new product from Bob Dylan. I cannot even believe that he has a driving, burning desire to make records although, as Keith Richards said, a songwriter is always writing songs and therefore always seeks an outlet for them. An unsung song is not worth much and it is probably for this reason that you would want to record it for posterity, and for the money. The Bootleg Series could be quite rich and after Dylan's death it will most likely be expanded into infinity but the best part of the previously unreleased material is probably out already. I am really only interested in the golden mid-Sixties period. Who cares for outtakes from Empire Burlesque or Infidels?
To a degree the three most recent albums represent easy listening Dylan. They seem a tad too glib and too polished to have any significant impact and there is nothing much in the lyrics that stick in the mind in the way the earlier words did. People may still quote the old Dylan. I do not think they will ever quote from anything he has done over the last 30 odd years. Would these records warrant major interest if they were by any other artist than Dylan? I guess not. On the evidence of Tempest he is a good roots guy with a sentimental streak and a love of words, nothing more.
The title track, "Tempest," is a very long account of the sinking of Titanic and the theme and the length echoes "Desolation Row" but where the latter song, by the young Dylan, is a wild poetic and dramatic ride of surrealistic imagery with an oddball cast of characters, the newer song by a much older Dylan is simply a straightforward narrative ballad with virtually no poetry or interesting images that one has not heard before. In fact it sounds as prosaic as to be a piece of hackwork that could have been written shortly after the ship sank. Obviously Dylan must have believed that this performance is deeply meaningful and heavily significant and that is why it is not only on the album but also the tile track. For my part it is not even on par with earlier narratives such as the various movie scenarios on Desire, or for that matter "Desolation Row" itself. Perhaps the answer is that "Desolation Row" demanded the weirdness and drama because Dylan was creating an imaginary landscape whereas the story of Titanic is very real and well-known and it would not do to over-dramatise an already dreadful disaster. The prosaic and almost banal details add up to the horror of the real life event.
Would this album have attracted as much attention as it has, if it had been released by anyone else? I dare say not. It is afforded attention and closer scrutiny because it is Dylan and because he is supposedly a genius. He still writes clever and sometimes interesting lyrics but the poetry is long gone. The prosaic narratives are not much a substitute for the fanciful lyrics of the early years.
One should not get stuck in an artist's past to the exclusion of present work but if the present work is not all that stimulating or awe inspiring, why should one not revert to the past glories that meant something? It always helps to get into an artist when either you are young or the artist is fresh. Rock is meant to be a young person's game and the old practitioners are doing it simply because they know nothing else and because it is their career en source of income. Tempest is once again a good example of a record that is made by professionals at the top of their craft but without particularly excitement. It may not be blues or country or rock by numbers, exactly, but that is the overall impression one gets. Craftsmen doing what they do very well yet with the professional's attitude. It's a job and I am going to do it well and nothing more. These people may as well be the musicians backing Miley Cyrus or Salina Gomez.
I did not come to Dylan or engage with his music because I needed a spokesperson for my generation, given that I was of the punk generation. I was impressed by the expressive lyrics that somehow were both seated in reality yet also in a world of his own imagining. Maybe it was the "rock poetry" that got me amidst a bunch of songs that seemed to have anodyne lyrics, if not completely idiotic pop. With Dylan you wanted to pay attention to the words. With just about everyone else the words were simply the necessary element to keep the song from being an instrumental. Now the music on his albums is still quite wonderful and obviously more in tune with a current vision of Americana yet his words are not so great an in his case I am now also simply listening to the entire thing and not only picking out what he is saying as important in and of itself.
Having said that, I am still comfortable with having bought the last three Dylan studio albums and have enjoyed for what they are: competent, well-crafted and mildly exhilarating American roots rock. I believe that these albums are minor works for those reasons. There is no apparent genius present here. The guy is a professional and is doing well at what he has been doing well for so many decades. No more and no less. Leonard Cohen is touring again at age 78 and has released one new album, since a financial disaster that robbed him of his life's savings. Dylan has never stopped touring and has never stopped releasing albums.
Some of the most interesting work comes from the series of archival recordings that have been released over the last 20 years. Stuff that were originally never meant for official release at the time and in a different world would never have seen the light of day as they show the artist in less than previously approved form, with demos and songs that at one time were not deemed fit for commercial release/. Nowadays there is a vast appetite, or so it seems, for the juvenilia or the failed experiments and surplus production of major artists. Neil Young has a similarly ambitious programme of archival recordings. Some of this must be hubris. Why would we want to hear old shit that was not good enough to release at the time? On the other hand, why not?