Studio album number 35 from Bob Dylan and to be perfectly honest the factor that has most influence on one’s perception of this release is context. It won’t be news to any of you that Mr Dylan hit his creative peak many years ago and has rarely since been able to locate base camp on the mountain of his early musical genius but let’s set that to one side along with the musings of the inevitable Dylanite sycophants to whom this will be another resounding masterpiece. Let’s remove Tempest from that context and relocate it in a more contemporary one. How does this album stack up against the myriad of folk, blues and Americana releases that we have been / will be treated to in 2012? Well, in many ways it does so quite well but there is a question mark as to whether or not it will become a long-loved favourite of music lovers be they Dylan fans or not.
There are moments of inspired song writing and examples of classic Dylan turns of phrase which would put many a published poet to shame. There are songs on Tempest which could easily sit on a “Best Of His Later Years” compilation. However, these moments sit uncomfortably alongside a few almost embarrassing nods to schoolboy poetry which really don’t stand up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, the title track, Tempest sinks into the latter category. At nearly 14 minutes long, this plodding sea shanty bores as it makes reference to RMS Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio and the moment when “something sounded wrong”!! Cringe. Best to enjoy this particular song for its musical merit – the sort of song you would hear faintly in a Dublin shebeen sung by a drunk, bearded, toothless fossil in the corner, sympathetically drowned out by chatter.
Let’s leave that unpleasantness aside and have a look at where Tempest hits the mark. The opening track, Duquesne Whistle, is a gloriously upbeat and whimsical mish-mash of musical styles from Dixieland to blues rock. Here, Dylan tells a travelling tale of life on the railroad in true blues tradition. “You’re the only thing that keeps me going” he sings to the train’s whistle, blowing up ahead. “Blowin’ like it’s gonna blow my blues away”. This is not blues by numbers – rather a dusty Western dream brought to life with great heart.
Soon After Midnight and Long & Wasted Years are bluesy ballads which keep the train a-rolling and are, for the most part, well written and soothing late night tales which, although not musically groundbreaking, serve to calm the tempest beautifully. They are songs that set the scene for the big-hitters which are to follow.
Tempest and it’s musical storm begins to build in earnest on the wonderful Pay In Blood – probably the zenith of the album. Dylan’s gravelly voice (almost incomprehensible at the start) evokes the feeling that there is passion in the old boy yet. Tom Waits himself would be proud of the drawl. One nearly wishes that Bob had made this song a 14 minute epic rather than the title track. “The more I die, the more I live” he rasps, “I pay in blood, but not my own”. Here, he lets his wispy hair down and gets rough and ready both with his growling vocals and the rumbling Stones-esque guitar. This is what we want, Bob! Encore!!
The deliciously dark and brooding tale of Scarlet Town soon gives way to some classic Hammond-backed boogie and a confident, wordy Dylan on the track Early Roman Kings. Is there a social message in there somewhere too? Perhaps there’s a reference to the financial villains that populate cities and governments? Perhaps so, perhaps not. Either way, we are treated to some of the lyrical highlights of the album with an apocalyptic vision of a society dripping in gold and blood. Speed this song up and throw in a siren whistle and Bob is almost revisiting Highway 61 – almost…ALMOST!
A new release by Bob Dylan will always split public opinion. Whether you think he should be kept where he belongs in your decaying record collection or should be encouraged to keep plugging away there is one thing for sure – the boy’s got talent. Stick Blood on the Tracks on the record player or play Tempest on your mp3 and you’ll doubtless find something that impresses you. With this in mind and given the sheer mass of his body of work, surely he can be excused the odd faux pas here or there on an album. In the context of his back-catalogue Tempest is something of a stepping stone more than a milestone but as a stand-alone album this actually does deserve a few stars (if indeed we were to use a star grading system). Where it loses points for a few moments of quite frankly sub-standard lyricism it gains reward for some exceptionally catchy tunes. Tempest is unlikely to win any new converts but to those who have already accepted Bob into their hearts there is much here to be enjoyed.
Review by: Craig Walker
Video: Bob Dylan – Duquesne Whistle
Tempest is released on Columbia 10th Sept 2012. You can buy it from our store here.