It has been a long time since Bob Dylan has enjoyed reviews for an upcoming album quite as hungry and euphoric as the ones handed out for Tempest, his thirty-fifth studio album. A Dylan album is always an event and rarely are his albums reviewed solely for the quality of the music. There is a context, both career-wise and cultural, that is always addressed and, like the speeches of a presidential candidate, they are examined from every angle.
Dylan is one of the most significant cultural figures of the last fifty years, so of course a new album cannot be judged on the music alone, for that is not how history or society will judge it. But Dylan has long stopped being relevant musically. He is doing nothing new and stretching no barrier. He can still win over with his lyrical genius; he is, after all, a writer of words first and foremost. This is what on his reputation is primarily based on. But not since Time Out of Mind in 1997 has Dylan genuinely created anything musically that would raise an eyebrow never mind hairs on the back of the neck. Time Out of Mind will probably end up being his last great album. Certainly on the basis of Tempest receiving so many 5-star reviews, everyone believes he can do no better than this nowadays. And Tempest is no Time Out of Mind.
What Dylan could always do was make it worth buying one of his albums, any of his albums; there would always be a reward. The turgid lost-soul dross of albums such as Under the Red Sky(1991) and Down in the Groove(1988) are worth owning for ‘Born in Time’ or ‘Ugliest Girl in the World’, or even his interesting, shaggy rendition of ‘Shenandoah’. The eighties, a difficult period for Dylan, saw him write some of his greatest songs, and some of them appeared on albums unworthy of such adornments. Dylan has not produced anything so awful and half-hearted as Knocked Out Loaded (1986) in these last fifteen years since the Time Out of Mind high point but neither has he written anything as cute as ‘Under Your Spell’.
For some it seems, the above-average steadiness of Dylan’s output since Time Out of Mind has been more than enough. And in America that may be a cultural coding rather than a truth. Dylan can perform with Mumford and Sons at the Academy Awards but he simply has lost the ability to truly grasp a narrative and shove it into a rousing chord sequence like he did with his own Oscar-winning song for Wonder Boys, ‘Things Have Changed’. With ‘Things Have Changed’ Dylan may have been talking about an alteration in his own position in the halls of American folklore. Nothing says ‘establishment’ like an Oscar on the shelf, and performing with Mumford and Sons is no less an act than Elton John teaming up with Blue and waving eagerly at the young faces of a carefully drawn out marketing strategy for ‘yesterday’s men’. Dylan was always an outsider, even when a recognised, White House-endorsed cultural megalith on the American landscape. But not any more, and his music has slithered into a tedious by-the-numbers conformism that the man who called for help for America’s farmers on stage at Live Aid would have laughed at dismissively.
Tempest shows Dylan as comfortable musically as he has ever been. He has his extremely accomplished band of pub-rockers, his Nashville sheen. And the album’s sound is an identikit of his previous four. There was a time when Dylan would do the opposite of what the public expected: go electric, go country, go Christian, go missing etc. Now he is unfurling a studio-version of his Never Ending Tour.
He is still a magnificent lyricist, capable of stepping away from Dylanisms and his own-created clichés (not easy when so many other imitators have built careers on this themselves). ‘Scarlet Town’ is particularly eerie, a song dragged through the woods by Dylan’s rotten voice – and his voice is closer than ever to the end of its illustrious career. Bob Dylan has always been unfairly derided for his vocal technique – famously so – but on Tempest he really is testing the faith. Gone are the textures found on Time Out of Mind, the grim sensuousness of ‘Not Dark Yet’, the aging whimsicalness of ‘Make Your Feel My Love’, or the lashing shadows of ‘Cold Irons Bound’. Here there is mainly phlegm with a little of what sounds like actual discomfort. The record does a remarkable job of making Dylan’s often brilliant narratives legible. Live the experience is unbearable and even somewhat pointless.
What Bob Dylan does successfully commence with is his journey toward the consummate bluesman, something he has always said he hoped to one day aspire to (his ambition to age into the role of blues singer is one of the only consistent strands of Dylan’s autobiographical output from the early sixties until now). The fatigue, although perhaps less obvious due to the aforementioned comfort he seems to have found, is still there. Sometimes Dylan sounds as ancient as the wind in the trees, and just as well-travelled. At some point, in fact, such as on the title track, you may find yourself wondering if Dylan is in the final movement of his greatest prank: the joke is on Mumford and Sons, is on the Oscars, is on everyone who ever gave him a 5-star review, because Dylan is older and wiser than us all and he knows something about the earth, fire, water and dirt that goes into the creation and very reason of music than any of us could really hope to understand. All we can do is listen to his interpretation of that knowledge, and perhaps he’s grown tired in his seven decades of trying to educate us, and now is trying a different tactic.