As my long reluctance has suggested, I’d hate to have to review Tempest at length myself. It would involve more care and effort than Dylan seems to have put into creating the album, and no-one would value the analysis when I'd finished. So I want to say only this: that I hate the way each Dylan album’s release is now preceded by megahype and ludicrously overblown Instant Reviews (mostly by carefully chosen patsies who have only been allowed to hear it through once), and in this case I don’t like most of the album itself. I question its artistic sincerity, because I cannot find his agonised fulminations credible. I don't believe him. And then, I'm appalled to feel, mostly, a dislike of the sound of his voice. I can’t respect much of the detailing of its timing and phrasing because so very often I think he hasn’t bothered even to try to pay those things careful attention. I like the title track, which so many people find execrable, and I like, but can't admire, the very minor ‘Soon After Midnight' and ‘Long And Wasted Years'. I think the rest is awful - its awfulness so vivid because it smothers the very tracks that come swollen with pretensions to gravity and substance.
People have defended the album in part by saying that his truly poor album was Self Portrait. This is a knee-jerk response and a large misjudgment. Just listen to - well, lots of things, but listen in particular to ‘Copper Kettle'. There is Bob Dylan shining out with a fully alive intelligence, up against the grain of the usual worthy folk performances of the song yet radiantly at one with its spirit - a Bob Dylan soaring, good-humoured and real. I feel the loss of that more modest, far more creatively competent, infinitely more humane and generous Bob Dylan very keenly. The last time I heard him was on “Love and Theft". Since then we've had product. Tempest came trailing the gassy clouds of the Corporate Bob machine. His vituperative whingeing in the Rolling Stone interview was vile, and the album he was plugging so sourly remains, for me, deeply unappealing however many times I listen to it.
Now here's a real review, Roy Kelly's THE MARVELLOUS ILLUSION:
... and he could not be found anywhere I know,
vanished, as if from a tower of rope
in that mythical magic of long ago...
A vertical rope ascending thin air
falls to its coil; and then absence everywhere.
I know you’re gonna
think this song is just a riff
What’s it like? It’s like Together Through Life squared, miles better than Modern Times, with aspects of “Love And Theft” discernible and new strangeness all its own. It’s loud, lively, weird, bracing, intermittently dreary, mad, odd, and finally, despite everything, sad. It’s unexpected and people might think of it as a gift, especially now, a long-distance mirror of those early days when Richard Farina said people would go to concerts not sure if they would get the chance again, Dylan was so intense he might disappear. Instead we wonder if there will be a next album. Is this his last word, people can’t help thinking. Some might not have wanted the Christmas album to be it, though I don’t think that brave and often lovely attempt to do right by songs people love, without having to claim they were his, would have been a bad testament. As it is worriers can breathe again. This is now the last word until the next album might appear. And we all start calculating the years.
Its opening is delightful, as if a 1940s country band with jazz overtones had somehow contrived to time-travel this to Bob Dylan, one of the most beguiling introductions to any of his records. It shares that transported from the past in all its genuine-instrumental-authenticity feel that was evident on Floater and Waiting For You. At one point he sings up with “Must be the Mother of Our Lord”, and brings the Christmas album back to you again, that same, slightly desperate, doing the best with what he’s got, way. There are too more or less subliminal musical traces of City Of New Orleans, Blue Moon Of Kentucky and New Morning for me, but perhaps for no-one else.
The next track, Soon After Midnight was the song I most liked immediately on first acquaintance. His voice doesn’t sound like charcoal grated against steel. He’s not pushing hard and so it doesn’t have that rubbed-the-wrong-way quality so widespread elsewhere. He sounds gentle, tender, wistful, all of which suit him and what he can do. It has one of my favourite Bob singing tricks where between the words ‘passing’ and ‘by’ he inserts a tiny, noticeable, knowing pause that absolutely enacts what he’s describing, showing whatever the state of his vocal cords, when it comes to phrasing he’s still skilled and intuitive. The melody, like every song on the album, is reminiscent of, or a direct take from, other songs. It sounds like the 1950s with the way the guitars are dreamy in the background, and then one steps out to play a phrase I know I know from those times but can’t quite bring to mind to identify. That’s Bob’s method these days. Why did I immediately like it? Because it sounds like a song, like the person is singing to a tune that connects to the words and gives them extra meaning, and the words sound like a real person is trying to make a connection with you.
This was an illusion. I’d listened and liked the words midnight and moon, the child-like, pleasing rhyming ease of phrases, praises, now and forever, more than ever, delivered with a kind of circumspect affection. I later glanced at all the words I couldn’t say I’d heard as such when the song was playing. What had I heard? A collection of sounds it seemed but not necessarily a meaning. I’d been seduced by the burnt honey of his voice which had made the content of the words dissolve. The mood of the song, the sound of it, that made me think I was hearing a person connect with me, was not so: all of the juxtapositions are non-sequiturs, jump cuts. What we’re hearing aren’t songs so much as soundscapes, and though he may successfully evoke a mood he doesn’t seem to care whether they have coherent meaning as such, or make overall sense. He’s changed the definition of what a Bob Dylan song is, and seems to be calling any song’s status into question.
The whole album works this way, dividing between short soundscapes and long soundscapes and all of them rely either on repeated riffs, over and over, or accompaniment, as in the title track with its vaguely Irish fiddle melody and string band, also recurring over and over, as though trying to recreate the length of 1912 in actuality, with verse following verse following verse, 45 we’re informed, indicating that Bob knew the old song and liked the film too. The Carter Family, his source, managed it in 7. In Narrow Way the band play a wrenching, grinding, guitar pattern with slight key variation, relentless as Tempest’s marketing campaign, over and over, again and again, time out of mind, the equivalent of a musical decimal point recurring. That is the music while Bob goes through the words, regularly calling at and setting off from the chorus way station, leaving us to wonder what “If I can’t work up to you you’ll surely have to work down to me someday” really means, and if it may be found buried in some old blues song.
Songs are about time, and repetition underlines that. Just as, though they might seem to emphasise stasis, chanting the same syllables over and over, or meditation, in fact can liberate you into a place where time doesn’t seem to hold sway. I don’t know if that has been on Bob’s mind, but given the repetitious nature of what he’s up to it wouldn’t surprise me. The album is titled Tempest after his song about the Titanic, but storms had nothing to do with that tragedy. Perhaps he’s thinking about the storm of life, and its day by day unfolding, repeating like a riff, and how tempest might be related to temporal. Not forgetting that he’s long been concerned with the past, present and future all happening in the same place.
On Long And Wasted Years he sings in his Basement Sign On The Cross voice, quite a surprise. In Early Roman Kings you hope first that it’s about just that. Then you hear sharkskin suits and high top boots, and read elsewhere about Brooklyn gangs, and, yes, the song might make sense that way. Except that subsequent verses go rogue and random and don’t connect with Brooklyn gangs, or each other or anything else really. They exist only so that Bob can find a rhyme for Kings every so often, and delight in machining his way through words that will rhyme with anything; and all set over the riff that might be ascribed to Muddy Waters, or Bo Diddley or field hands a hundred years before them, but in any case could never be thought new and original no matter how many professional chops his band bring to playing and arranging it.
His ersatz murder ballad Tin Angel uses traditional words: a buckskin mare, someone riding all day and all night, a golden chain; but also in addition to relinquishing a helmet and cross-handled sword he asks for his coat and tie. There is an electric wire. At the finale a gun goes boom. That’s satisfyingly achronological. The song of course is a mish-mash of doggerel and clumsiness that can’t even be given life by his fire-sale voice or the low-key doomy music, so opaque is the narrative and so devoid of internal coherence. You recall the Henry Lee of Love Henry and wonder what on earth Bob thought he was doing here, someone who once was eloquent about the mystery and beauty of those songs where roses grow out of people’s brains, lovers turn into geese and swans to angels. He doesn’t want the arrow of time it seems, he wants all-at-onceness, the eternal overlay where everything is still happening. The past and present really are all in one space now, one giant ball of plenty, a kaleidoscope of sounds, the world made Bootleg Series.
People want Bob to be as important as Shakespeare because Shakespeare borrowed and took and reused other people’s stories and words too, and often seemed drunk on the sound of words and could appear not to care whether what was happening made sense. Of course Bob’s real self is as mysterious as Will’s. You can’t be sure he exists in any of the songs on Tempest, or anywhere else, he’s just the vehicle for how they get out into the world. Why, he even kept himself out of his own memoir, that grid pattern of other people’s words and outright fiction. He doesn’t write songs out of his own experience anymore. He’s like an artist, or master forger, who makes pictures by using elements and images from other people’s pictures only, and not from what he sees in the world. Pastiche, assemblage, collage, synthesis, making songs out of songs that already exist, tends to blunt and blur the personal. After that it’s just exercises in style and someone imitating himself, forms of karaoke, no matter how sincerely successful he, or the world, believes it to be.
The failure that typifies this for me is Roll On John, which many seem to find genuinely moving. All I hear is bits and pieces of words from Lennon, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and William Blake, as well ships, roads, sails, buffalo, rain, and snow, shuffled together arbitrarily and then sung as emotionally as if the whole were drenched in meaning, a triumph of intent over substance, having nothing to work with, the text being a simulacrum. But then, as Shakespeare wrote, nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. The point of the album is this: the way he sings means more than what he sings. If John Lennon meant so much to him could he not have written a real song, one as careful, composed, thought out and touching in the precise sense that it seems to reach out and touch you, as Not Dark Yet? Elsewhere people note reverently the dark themes of blood, murder, violence, and redemption. Don’t they know it’s all pretend, it’s all stage magic?
Bob said that he wanted to write an album of religious songs but it was too difficult. The religious aspect now is that you have to submit to it as you would a conversion, leave critical faculties and doubt behind and take that leap of faith. My teenage son, who therefore is a master of all-at-onceness and the ball and kaleidoscope of plenty, advises that comparing Bob now with what he was is bound to lead to disappointment; that he has to be enjoyed for precisely what he is with no harking back. But we all know what we know. And if you admire the artistry, empathy and writing skill that created the extended narratives of The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, or Idiot Wind, or even Black Diamond Bay, the Tempest long songs are going to seem of a different, and I find, lower order.
In the prolonged circus-is-coming-to-town haul of pre-release publicity, - the world papered with digital handbills as it was with actual ones in Ray Bradbury stories or Dylan’s childhood, - the secret, sacred object is played in a locked room for chosen acolyte journalists, stripped of all recording apparatus, including pencil and paper. After release, when everyone is in on the game, the circus motif shifts to the tour and its carnival progress. The secret, sacred object becomes Bob himself, the cranky, grumpy, predictably unpredictable, contrarian septuagenarian, the once and future Bob Dylan, and he must be praised in as unthinking a way as sacred objects of veneration are. If one says that what one would have liked to hear was something as considered, careful, measured, poetically true to its creator’s view of the way the world is now to a person of his age and experience, - written and not gathered is what one means, - as Paul Simon’s So Beautiful Or So What, then the laughter begins followed by accusations of apostate negativity. Simon is seen, I think, as fastidious, stuffy, staid, when compared to the aura of Asperger’s-savant that seems to adhere to Bob Dylan. More than a songwriter and performer Bob is viewed as a force and freak of nature, as much an evidence of America, as it is now and historically, as a chip off Mount Rushmore. What he does is judged by standards too often applicable only to him. Nevertheless Paul Simon and Bob Dylan are of an age, in the same business and from the same times; paradoxically the one about to sketch you a picture of what’s going on around here sometimes is no longer Bob.
Instead he gifts you this amped up, pumped up, loud, lively, weird, bracing, mad, odd, irradiated with latter-day darkling delights, intermittently dreary offering, repetitive and finally sad. Like Prospero’s, it is a marvellous illusion. For many of course this will be more than enough.