Bob Dylan has spent the last decade-and-a-half criss-crossing the world on his ‘never-ending tour’ while releasing four critically-acclaimed albums and one head-scratching holiday record. Next week Dylan releases Tempest, his remarkable 35th studio album and a bold if not brooding statement from a man in his 70’s.
iTunes has been streaming the album all week which has led to tremendous online buzz as well as pronouncements of ‘Dylan’s return to greatness’ and ‘best album since…’ declarations. I won’t pretend to be a Dylan historian or attempt to rank this album within his incredible cannon of work. Instead, let’s just take his latest offering for what it is…an amazing record.
The musicianship alone makes Tempest worth repeat listens. His long-time touring band provides a lush canvass for Dylan’s thoughts to take shape. Guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G. Receli and string player Donnie Herron, are joined by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and together they deliver a timeless sound that covers most forms of popular music from the last hundred years. There’s blues, jazz, rockabilly, country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll on full display, acting like a soundtrack for Dylan`s takes of love, loss, tragedy and despair.
The most up-beat track on the album is the opening number and first single “Duquesne Whistle“. The bright pedal steel guitar and chugging steam train beat signify the beginning of a journey. Hop on board, because we`re about to take a little trip.
Tempest is not a hopeful record. In fact, it`s fairly dark. Dylan`s words are sharp and direct. There are many references to death and murder, including the 50-verse (no chorus), 14-minute title track about the sinking of the Titanic – and we all know how that ended.
The tone of Dylan`s thoughts and stories on Tempest fit his gnarly vocals perfectly. The current snarl can`t sound anything but angry. Yet there`s a musicality to the growling on this record that I haven`t heard from Dylan in a while. There`s melody and charm, even if he is covering some pretty murderous material. Even when he croons on a track like `Soon After Midnight“ he does so with a lovelorn bitterness that sounds anything but pretend.
As with every Dylan release, Tempest will be measured against his previous works and accomplishments. While I find it completely unfair to even consider the notion that this record is as good or important as Blonde On Blonde or Blood On The Tracks, it does come out 50 years after his first release in 1962. I can think of two other seminal artists from the `60`s celebrating their 50th anniversaries this year, and neither are coming close to breaking the musical ground Dylan is tackling five decades later.
While The Beach Boys released their best album in decades with That`s Why God Made The Radio, with the exception of a few Brian Wilson gems, it`s a fairly nostalgic celebration of their 50th with a recapturing of the classic Beach Boys sound.
Then there`s the Rolling Stones. In the same week that Dylan gives fans a new collection of 10 completely original and mostly outstanding tracks, the Stones announce that they`ll celebrate their 50th with yet another compilation of their 50 greatest hits along with two new tracks. Pretty disappointing news from the world`s greatest rock `n` roll band.
I`ve read where some are predicting that this might be Dylan`s final album. The Tempest is after all the name of what many believe was William Shakespeare`s final play, a comic tragedy no less, where the main character, Prospero, spends 12 years stranded on an island and in his final monologue asks the audience to set him free. Perhaps Tempest is the final act in Dylan`s 12 year journey that began with 2001`s Love And Theft. When asked about the comparison to Shakespeare`s The Tempest, Dylan, ever the wordsmith, replies, “It wasn’t called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.”
I think Bob`s being a little coy here. Just take a look at the video for `Duquesne Whistle` and tell me you don`t see a little Shakespearean drama unfolding!