A few weeks back I mentioned Uncle Bob had a new album coming soon, and that soon has become now and ultimately then, as Tempest has been out a couple of weeks or so and I’ve had that much time to acquaint myself.
As mentioned previously, I’ve been grossly underwhelmed by his last two efforts, Modern Times (2006) and Together through Life (2009), feeling like one was a flat line of one shuffle after another, and the other was a flat line with accordion. And neither of them are bad albums, it’s just that they’re not memorable, with only Thunder on the Mountain from Modern Times even attempting to make any sort of dent in my already muddled mind.
But the sneak preview of Duquesne Whistle with its dreamtime intro and 30s era vamp gave me a sparkle of hope for Tempest, and while I didn’t run out and buy it on release day, I did pick it up (admittedly because my wife reminded me) opening week.
Before I get into initial impressions, I have to step back with a bit of a realization that hit me last night and the notion that I’m not really sure why I’m a Dylan fan. Why do I ask? Well, because with Dylan it’s as much about the lyrics as anything else, maybe even more, and as I’ve said here before, I don’t give a rat’s buttocks about lyrics. For me, lyrics are another instrument to carry the vocal melody and the only way they’ll usually rise to the surface and stick with me is when the melody and/or music surrounding them are so great that the lyrics are the residue left by that impression.
So maybe that’s why Dylan is still getting 4 and 5 star reviews from Rolling Stone and other reputable music media sources for his last couple of albums, because his lyrics are as strong as ever, and since the music, when playing, is enjoyable, the true Dylan-phile can have their cake and eat it too. But seriously (and I ran this by Bill, the biggest Dylan-phile I know – who agreed) the question stands: If these albums were put out by anyone other than Bob Dylan, would anyone care? Would they get a glowing review in Rolling Stone? Would they get reviewed at all?
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but the truth remains – while Dylan may be “back” from his 80s slump, he’s really not going anywhere, just continues to chug along the same tracks, not so much keeping it “safe” as just pulling off what he enjoys doing. And ultimately that’s okay. As I’ve said before of Dylan and other innovators (like Eno), how many times is the same artist expected to reinvent the wheel? Just look at the man’s legacy of the past 50 years. And while most would argue that his real influence on popular music ended around the mid 70s (and I’m not saying that’s true), he did enough in those 15 odd years to keep people paying attention all through the mire of the 80s and salivating over most everything he’s done for the past 15 years.
And still, having said that, I have to say that the rarities and outtakes catch all Tell Tale Signs (Vol 8 from his Bootleg Series), pulling from various sessions, soundtracks, etc from Oh Mercy to Modern Times (another 15ish year period), is a fantastic and highly cohesive collection of material. In some respects this may be surprising considering the wide expanse of time, yet shows (me at least) that some of the tunes on Modern Times that make me snore are quite good when approached in a different manner, and he just chose the version that perhaps better fit the album than was, you know, worth hearing. And I think it’s this mix mash up of years and styles and producers (as long as Dylan keeps producing himself under the Jack Frost moniker, he’ll never really break anymore genre barriers) that makes this double (or triple if you’ve got it) album not only the most exciting thing he’s put out in ten years, but soundly proves that his comeback really is legit (it’s worth the price of purchase for the live version of High Water alone) – he just needs someone to tell him which songs (or versions) should make it to the official albums.
But honestly, I’m not really enough of a Dylan-phile to even be attempting this review, much less delving into such matters, but the truth is I own most of the man’s catalog, I get on fire over portions of it, and since I’m shelling money on him still today, I guess I’m entitled to some sort of voice.
Well, first off I have to say that I HATE the album cover. I mean what is that? Easily his worst ever, and this is from the man who allowed Shot of Love to be put on the shelves (and I mean that from an album cover perspective, not musically – I quite enjoy that album).
But musically speaking, in short, I dig Tempest. To me it’s a good step back to the variety of Love and Theft while still pulling the train forward in the manner he’s done on the last two albums, which is essentially further into the past. And again, I’m still not listening to the lyrics per se, but I’ve begun singing along to certain songs in the car. Why? Well, because of the music. The big difference here for me is the presence of memorable riffs and guitar licks in most of these tunes. They scat and chug and shake a groove and glide wistfully along – and sometimes even raise the hair on the back of my neck…which is more than I can say for even mid 60s “heyday” Dylan (that’s right, suck it, Robertson). Dylan’s dark humor is in top form, he still tells a compelling story and the couple or so Beatles lifts make me chuckle every time I hear them. Easily, it’s the best set of melodies he’s had in some time, and it’s a flat pleasure to croon along to Soon after Midnight, bemoan those Long and Wasted Years or half growl about the Early Roman Kings. Aside from the somewhat meandering tedium of the title track (hey Bob, we all know the story to this one…), there really isn’t a dull moment on Tempest.
Plus, from a genre perspective, instead of fusing everything together, the various styles are more pronounced, be it jazz or blues or Dixieland swing, it’s a nice jumble of flavors, exactly as Love and Theft was, and this is exactly what Dylan needs to keep things interesting. So instead of having what feels like one continuous song that pauses long enough to change keys every 8 or 9 verses/5 or 6 minutes, we have individual pieces, statements, cohesive melodies and counterparts that finally live up to the Tin Pan pop and Americana that he’s been pulling so heavily from the past 10 years. Because really, Tempest is homage music, Dylan going back to and rehashing the 20s and 30s sounds he loved as a boy and has carried with him and expanded upon throughout his entire career.
And again, he’s not breaking new ground. Tempest picks up logically where Together through Life leaves off, the difference is within the songs themselves, as well as his approach. I recently read an article that was essentially a bunch of interviews of the engineers, producers and musicians he worked with from Oh Mercy to Modern Times, and one thing I picked up on was that he’d attack the same song in every key and every style, but never the same way twice. It’s a fascinating concept, and with Tempest he seems to have picked from the best of each song, allowing the album to meander as it pleases, rather than finding a distinct sound to ride on from start to finish. The end result is a strong set of toe tapping, sing worthy tunes that not only familiarize themselves with successive listens, but linger with you longer (and more favorably) than even Thunder on the Mountain.