Everyone knows Bob Dylan, but in his case there are degrees of familiarity. Has any popular music artist of recent times attracted the same degree of devotion from their fans?
BOB DYLAN: TEMPEST
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For those who profess to know the 71-year-old best, both the fans who will buy his records on the morning of release (in a record store and ideally on vinyl) and his followers in the international media, each of his 35 albums has been one to pore over and cherish.
To the civilian appreciator of Bob, however, he may well be more familiar as a man who made lots of great music in the 1960s, quite a bit in the 1970s, and then retreated into cult success – albeit one of the biggest cults in the world, but still worthy of the description in that his recent career has largely been a conversation between himself and his followers. Only occasionally has his conmore recent work broken through into the mainstream: the Adele-sponsored latterday success of Make You Feel My Love from 1997’s Time Out of Mind, an album which broke an unremarkable run of chart placings, or the unexpected admittance of his 2009 Mitch Miller cover Must Be Santa into the Christmas song canon.
It’s to this latter group any review of Dylan’s work must inevitably cater, because otherwise this would be the best album of the year and one of the greatest ever released, and that would be that. It’s neither, but what we do have here is a pretty good Bob Dylan record which gives the lie to any presumptuous notion that creative passion and vitality wanes in the elderly.
Like Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball album released earlier this year, Dylan’s Tempest (the finality of the allusion to Shakespeare’s last play has already been mischievously brokered and dismissed) brandishes the implicit belief that expressing dissatisfaction with politics and society is a function of the serious songwriter. In this, it already has more guts than 95 per cent of mainstream contemporary music.
Hidden behind a strangely retro cover composed of the neon- monogrammed title and a red-washed photograph of a statue (a detail from the Pallas-Athene fountain in Vienna), Dylan’s opener Duquesne Whistle proves to be one of the highlights here, an old-time country swing with a pealing guitar line repeated throughout that rings out like the horn of the titular locomotive. It’s upbeat and homely, musically memorable and sublime in its creation of a time and a place through Dylan’s evocative, lyrical imagery.
Early Roman Kings is where things get dark, a taut honky-tonk streaked with harmonica and menace, Dylan threading the corruption of ancient Rome and contemporary America together eloquently. “They destroyed your city / they’ll destroy you as well…” he broods, “the day Detroit fell / they killed ‘em all off.” It brings an involuntary smile as you imagine all the true believers willing him on through some of the album’s most potentially self-referential lyrics: “I ain’t afraid to make love… I ain’t dead yet, my bells still ring.”
Lyrically there are highs and lows (although more of the former), but the music on the album is unimpeachable, a classy tour through the roots Americana of the 20th century’s first four-fifths. It’s clear that Dylan is a proper enthusiast, and his compositions render mournful rock ballad Long and Wasted Years and barroom blueser Narrow Road (its “this is my country to stay alive in” line a declaration of most Dylan-like ambiguity) rich and enjoyable. Although Dylan has never been a singer to make definitive and sweeping political statements, the resonant Pay in Blood comes closer than most of his songs, bemoaning “another politician, pumpin’ out the piss” and declaring, “I came to bury, not to praise”.
“I’ll pay in blood, but not my own,” is his portentous solution to society’s ills.
Two songs appear to have captured the attention more than most, mainly down to their subject matters although neither Roll On, John (a tribute to John Lennon) or Tempest (an epic 14-minute evocation of the Titanic disaster) are among the finest.
The former is a pleasant if somewhat mawkish ballad that references William Blake and pays apparent tribute to not just Lennon but the scene that bore the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to America. The latter is an Irish folk elegy whose sometimes uncharacteristically clunking lyrics (“passengers were flying… they mumbled, fumbled, tumbled”) and perplexing, James Cameron-pleasing references to Leo and his sketchbook dilute the potent ultimate message, that “there is no understanding for the judgment of God’s hand”.
Neither are comparable to the powerful, biblical Western finale of Tin Angel, but no song here comes close to disappointing – they only display differing degrees of control from a man whose ability, unlike the drop-dead power of that tarmac-scraping voice, remains untarnished by age.
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