Wednesday, December 5, 2012
New Record! Bob Dylan: Tempest
Artist: Bob Dylan
Format: LP(x2) + CD
It's funny, I still run into people that don't know that Bob Dylan is still making records and that they are still good. Ok, sure, Dylan put out some not-so-great records for about 20 years (from the mid '70s until the mid '90s), but here's the thing: this year is the 50th anniversary of his first LP. When you make records for 50 years, you're probably going to make some stinkers.
So what of Bob Dylan's 35th studio album, Tempest? Well, it's very much in keeping with the material he's been making since 1997's Time Our of Mind. If you like the music Dylan's been making for the last 15 years or so, you'll like this. I certainly do. Bob Dylan plays memorable songs, backed by a great band, with smart lyrics peppered with references to traditional American folk songs and other old-time music. The band sounds like a new band playing old music--the production is full and clean even though the music draws more on traditional folk, blues, and tin pan alley tunes than any contemporary music. The arrangements are similar to both of his 2009 albums, Together through Life and Christmas in the Heart, especially the latter (surprisingly). But that's not to say he's become a one-trick pony. There's a lot of variety on this album, even as it sounds familiar to a fan of his more recent work.
The record begins with the incredibly catchy "Duquesne Whistle" (pronounced "Doo-Kane"), which I frequently wake up hearing in my head. The song rolls along in an upbeat fashion reminiscent of a lot of the tracks on Love and Theft (2001). Lyrically, it's a classic "rambling on the train" song, and it feelss familiar and comfortable without being derivative. Similar in feel are "Narrow Way," with its upbeat tempo and slide guitar give it a similar blues-rock feel, and "Early Roman Kings," another bluesy feeling song that would be great for a roadtrip mix. These songs really swing, and have a defiant feel that fits one of the themes that appears on several tracks on the record--Dylan declaring himself to be (still) a force to be reckoned with. On "Narrow Way," he declares "I'm armed to the hilt and I'm struggling hard, you won't get out of here unscarred." During "Pay in Blood" he tells us "I've been to hell, what good did it do? You bastard, I'm supposed to respect you?... This is how I spend my days--I came to bury, not to praise. I drink my fill, and sleep alone. I pay in blood. But not my own." Dylan is still here and still fighting: "I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings. I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings." He's pretty feisty on some of these songs, and the tone is matched by his voice, which over the last 15 years or so has been shifting from a forlorn nasal tone (still heard on Tempest) to an increasingly guttural grunt, which sounds more forceful and less mournful.
But it's not all swagger and bravado. There's some dark and/or dour moments too. My favorite track on the record is probably "Scarlett Town," which paints a surreal picture of a town where everything is a little off and something sinister seems to be lurking just beneath the surface. In this song, like so many of Dylan's ballads, he creates characters with fragments of information that leave you wanting to know more about them--who is Uncle Bill? Why is Sweet William dying? I kind of get the chills thinking about it sometimes, and tinkly piano and slow banjo picking reinforce the dark, creepy feel of the song. It would not have been out of place among the tunes onthe rather dark Time Out of Mind. There's also a murder ballad, "Tin Angel," which ends with all three members of a love triangle bleeding on the floor. The album closes with "Roll on John," a touching song that, in Dylan's round about and poetic way, tells the story of John Lennon's life and death. It's a nice tribute, and adds another layer of emotion to the album.
The one track on this record that doesn't work that well for me is actually the title track. "Tempest" is a 13 minute ballad about the Titanic sinking. Musically, it pretty much does the exact same thing for the whole 13 minutes, and I just don't feel like it holds up. In my opinion, Dylan would have been better off to trim this down to seven or even five minutes. It's got the same character development thing going on as in other Dylan story songs like "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts" from 1975's Blood on the Tracks, which I like, but the music on "Tempest" is just too repetitive for 13 minutes.
On the whole, I really like this record. I've been listening to it a lot since it came out, and if you're a Dylan fan I recommend it. If you're only familiar with his early stuff and have been curious about what he's been up to lately, this isn't a bad place to start.
To get you started, here's teh oficial video for "Duquesne Whistle."
Check back soon for more reviews, including some unusual holiday stuff!
Total songs listened: 891