Then I heard the album. Curse you, Zimmerman.
Dan Wiencek: I definitely hear you in regard to the usual bloviations by the usual critical suspects — when I saw that Tempest had earned (if that is the word) a five-star writeup in what passes for Rolling Stone nowadays, it prejudiced me against it. And then, like you, I actually heard it.
Now, Christmas in the Heart didn’t make much impression on me, really. Christmas music lives in a different part of my brain, and I have a much higher tolerance for potentially inappropriate musical choices at Yule time than I do from January to November. My question from the get-go was simple: how does it stack up to Love and Theft? Because Love and Theft for me is the archetypal “best since Blood on the Tracks” Dylan release. Modern Times had good songs, but felt rather bloodless after repeated listenings; Together Through Life rocked and swung in a way Dylan hadn’t really done before, but with songs that felt tossed off, half-written.
But Tempest largely gets it right. The writing shows Dylan continuing his trawl through the old-time American songbook, appropriating, rewriting and outright stealing at will. And the playing is fun, energetic and full of catchy little touches and details. I fell for “Duquesne Whistle” immediately: that intro is among the corniest things Dylan has done, but then the rhythm section bursts in, and Bob lets fly with that raspy, gurgling thing he does, and I’m loving it.
Dunphy: With “Duquesne Whistle” I liked that opening because it did two things — after the novelty aspect of the Christmas album, it seemed like a curveball. Here’s Bob doing this old-tyme schtick sort of music, etc., and the band truly kicks in and you realize, oh, this is something else entirely. And I like that the opening feels antiquated, almost like it is coming out of a boombox far away, then it opens up as it does. Kind of a neat sonic effect.
One of the things I like about Tom Waits, to namedrop another hell-razed voice, is that you enter his musical endeavors on his terms and not yours. He may be doings something really anarchic and avante-garde with Primus as the back-up band but you go with him because he is Waits and will take you somewhere. What I feel about Dylan, at least more often than not in recent outings, is that he has been more self-parody than co-owner of his own gifts. This time out it’s as if he is saying, “I don’t have to make the album people expect, but at the same time I don’t have to rub their noses in it.”
So you actually get a few tracks where he eases up on his own voice and sings quiet sweetly (at least for him) like the ’50s-ish “Soon After Midnight.” In other spots, like on “Narrow Way,” he sometimes sounds like Tom Petty (“There’s a bleedin’ wound in the heart of town”). He’s even quiet controlled and on-key for most of “Tempest” as long as that is. But like I mentioned earlier, you lost the charms of the song, the accounting of the sinking of the Titanic, because it’s almost as long as the damn movie if not the actual event. A song of half its size would have meant more, but again you come to Dylan on his terms, not yours, and in an album that his surprisingly tame with excesses, this is the most exorbitant of the indulgences.
Wiencek: While it’s early days with the album, I’m gonna go on the record and say I liked “Tempest,” inordinate length and all. I mean, I guess it could be shorter and still be good, but as you say, part of what makes that song is Dylan’s insistence that *this* is the song as it had to be written, and fuck you if it’s too long, or doesn’t have a chorus. I was skeptical when I read his Rolling Stone interview talking about how artists care more about “what should have happened” rather than what actually did. But I see where he was coming from now. “Tempest” (the song) is almost like an Expressionist painting, where every bit of fear, rage and virtue felt over the course of that event is made literal and put on display. It’s over the top and mostly made up and yet it really does have some kind of truth at its core. It’s a much more compelling achievement than, say, “Highlands,” which tried to make a virtue of its own near-pointlessness.
Has Dylan been parodying himself? I’m not sure if I buy it. His borrowings from the old-timey songbook are so blatant that a parody might not be distinguishable from the real thing. If Dylan today has a vice, it’s laziness: he’ll start horsing around with an old song and not bother to make something really new and striking out of it. “High Water” from Love and Theft was a great borrowing; “My Wife’s Hometown” from Together Through Life was lazy. There are a couple tracks on Tempest that feel thrown together, like “Early Roman Kings,” and I’m not sure if “Scarlet Town” gets far enough away from “Barbara Allen” to escape its gravitational pull.
But most of Tempest doesn’t feel like that to me. I love “Long and Wasted Years,” with a vocal so engaged and full of subtle inflections that it took me a while to notice that it’s essentially spoken. “Narrow Way” has a great barroom groove and “Pay in Blood” beautifully channels that dark side Dylan has been mining since Time Out of Mind. And “Roll on John” worked. I don’t quite know why I was expecting the worst, but it’s touching, sincere but not mawkish.
Matt Wardlaw: Even when there is a recent disaster (in Dylan’s case, the Christmas album) in the distance, I can put that to the side. Against great odds (especially with some artists), I can still believe. I think one of the greatest joys as a music fan is the surprises that come so unexpectedly. Someone like Dylan isn’t supposed to still be making great albums (age discrimination, right?) and with their catalog of achievements, we don’t expect them to. So it makes the later period “wins” even more exciting.
Dunphy: My particular take on self-parody is broad in that there have been times I’ve heard Dylan singing in an almost hyper-realized “Dylan-esque” style, full of the odd cadence swoops and drops with no interest in being a part of the song’s melody…which is a standard Dylan trope. When he sang “Mr. Tambourine Man” he’d affect an Irish lilt a’la Tommy Makem (I’d assume). I’m not sure exactly who he was modeling his voice after for the entirety of Nashville Skyline, but he hardly sounded like Bob Dylan. And on more recent records, his growl has been infinitely more abused and rough than this album presents (in part). So he lives up to his reputation as a chameleon.
That may well be the case here in that he is not forcing those characterizations on Tempest. I think he’s actually channeling a bit of his tourmate Mark Knopfler (which I’m not complaining about in the least) but there is a naturalness to this album that either is a nice example of sincerity, or at least his his best fake at sincerity in some time. Like we agreed on, you cannot make Dylan into what you want him to be. Joan Baez couldn’t, Pete Seeger couldn’t, even Jesus Christ seemingly couldn’t win that wrestling match.
Wardlaw: It’s a good solid piece of work and there’s a nice spring in the step of the pacing of the music on a number of the songs, even when the subject matter is darker.
Love the Beatles-related references — “shake it up baby, twist and shout” in “Long and Wasted Years” and of course, the whole of “Roll on John.” It’s always fun to look at the lyrics of a Dylan album and try to dissect them. But beyond that, the quality of the lyrics is still there — again, looking at “Long and Wasted Years.” There’s amazing storytelling still in progress. So many artists get 10-15 albums into their career and the lyrical quality goes to shit. But that’s far from the case here with Dylan, as he heads towards studio album #35 with the release of Tempest.
My first Dylan albums were (beginning in 1989) Oh Mercy, Under The Red Sky and Good As I Been To You at a time when he was showing music fans that he still had the goods. (From that point, I worked my way backwards through other parts of his catalog.) Twenty plus years later, he’s still doing that. Very cool.
Wiencek: It’s possible he was affecting a slightly more growl-y growl on Together Through Life, and that he’s allowing himself to sound a bit more natural now. That makes sense inasmuch as TTL was fairly tongue-in-cheek throughout; in fact, tying back to your [Dunphy’s] point about self-parody, that previous record feels like Dylan slightly taking the piss out of himself, recycling every blues and folk trope he could think of in order to have something to sing over those grooves. On Tempest, he’s in all the way. It’s not perfect, and I don’t think it’s Love and Theft caliber, but I’m very pleased with it.
Wardlaw: The title track in particular caught my ear, because of the vocal, which has a very “different” Dylan tone than what I’m used to from the modern day stuff. At first listen, his vocals, particularly on the front end of the opening verse, have an almost Waylon Jennings-like feel to my ears, although with Dylan’s voice, that Jennings sound has been put through a belt sander. Throughout the album, he’s using every inch of what’s left of his voice and it’s interesting to hear that even now, he’s taking things vocally to new and different places.
Wiencek: I think we can all agree, however, that the cover art sucks.
Dunphy: Oh, no question there. “Slap some clip art photo on the front, throw some red on it, boom goes the dynamite.”
Wardlaw: I think we now know what the guy who did some Pat Benatar album covers in the ’80s is doing these days. He couldn’t get a better font for the “Bob Dylan” part though?