Bob Dylan // Tempest

September 6th, 2012

Ever since the 2005 Scorsese documentary reminded the world of Bob Dylan’s importance, every new album he releases has received rather over-excited reviews. In fact, despite some good songs, he has not released a truly excellent album since Love & Theft in 2001, treading water with too much reliance on recycled blues riffs, knocking out a fun but inconsequential Christmas album and even needing help with the lyrics on Together Through Life. The build-up to the release of Tempest, supposedly Dylan’s 35th album (but who’s really counting), has been equally exuberant. It began with news of songs about the Titanic and John Lennon, soon followed by the usual declarations of it being his best since, well, whichever you think is his last great album.

Happily, Tempest transcends the hype, beginning with the cheerful opening track Duquesne Whistle which clatters along pleasingly. Next track Soon After Midnight is a swinging ballad that appropriates the vocal melody of Fats Domino’s Walking To New Orleans while somehow managing to rhyme hurry with fury. Narrow Way follows with Bob chugging through his weary troubles, explaining to a love interest that “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday”. Long And Wasted Years sounds like some of his songs from the mid-80s might have done if they had been better produced while Pay In Blood takes a simple guitar line and some threatening lyrics to become a defiant warning. Meanwhile, the banjo driven and moody Scarlet Town has more in common with the folk tradition, an atmospheric cross between recent epics Not Dark Yet and High Water.

About halfway through and signs are good, perhaps Dylan has made an album to sit alongside his many other classics. But oh, look out, here comes another stolen Muddy Waters lick on Early Roman Kings. However, this turns out to be probably the most famous blues motif of all, given a slight twist and a bit of accordion but with some great strutting outbursts from the man himself – “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings” he says, with a somewhat disturbing air for a man of 71.

The final three tracks are all rather epic. Together they add up to more time than the whole of Nashville Skyline. Tin Angel and Tempest are two of the strongest songs Dylan has written in a very long time. Cinematic in scope and lyrically transfixing they are obvious highlights among stiff competition. They are followed by the afore-mentioned Lennon tribute song which, fine in sentiment and essentially turning the Beatle into a folk legend, is nonetheless slightly bizarre to hear.

Individually these are attention-grabbing songs, together making a terrific album and sung with as much gusto and care as Dylan can manage from the admittedly limited vocal power he has left. By taking the lyrical depth of Time Out Of Mind and the musical strength of Love & Theft, ol’ Bob has once again hit his stride. Apparently Dylan is very pleased with this album and wants as many people to hear it as possible, a sentiment with which it’s hard to disagree. As ever the only barrier to enjoyment may be whether you can stand his voice, but this has been the dividing line for 50 years now and frankly those who can’t get into its current nuanced croak are missing out. With Tempest, for the first time in over a decade, Dylan has come up with something more varied than his recent output that both lives up to its tumultuous name and has enough substance to hold your interest and take you on a unique journey of survival from the ravaged voice of a generation.

Tempest is available worldwide 10 September 2012

Words > Ollie Carlisle

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