These days, new Bob Dylan records are often compared to his material from 1997 or later. The album he released that year, Time Out of Mind, was hailed as yet another Dylan comeback and another in a long line of his chosen identities, this one the journeyman musician who could still write and record a spectacular song, and who was well aware of his fame but also his own mortality (“it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there”). The Dylan of the 60’s was in there somewhere, but after telling us that he “used to care, but things have changed,” it was time to for a new scale on which to judge his music.
Since then, it’s been a 15-year streak that has been remarkably consistent. Listen to any of his four previous albums (not including his highly tongue-in-cheek 2009 Christmas album) and you’ll hear songs that have remarkably simple construction – verse/chorus/verse/repeat 4-30 times – mixed with his increasingly simple yet still playful lyrics and a voice that gets more gravelly every year. Any one song on these post-1997 records would fit perfectly on the others. That’s not to say there aren’t standouts; “Mississippi” on Love and Theft and “Workingman’s Blues #2” on Modern Times rank among the best Dylan has ever recorded.
All of this is to say the bar is set high for Dylan’s 35th studio album, Tempest, and sadly, it falls short. It’s certainly an ambitious project – five of the 10 songs are over seven minutes, and one is nearly 14 – but there is no cohesion between the songs, nor is there a standout track. Too often Dylan and his band come up with one or two good hooks per song and repeat them for as long as Dylan can come up with lyrics. (Which he seems to have no problem doing, even if they often feel like they’re made up as he sings; having Robert Hunter along as cowriter on 2009’s Together Through Life apparently reined him in).
There are flashes of greatness though – this is Dylan, after all. “Narrow Way” is a jumpy blues number that would fit in on Highway 61 Revisited, but like the rest of the record suffers from repetition. “Roll On John,” about John Lennon, is a quiet, surrealistic ode to Dylan’s late friend that adds in several Beatles lyrics. And “Scarlet Town,” is an evocative Western feeling dirge that calls back to “Ain’t Talkin’” from Modern Times. The instrumentation is tight and with lyrics like “play it for my flat-chested junky whore” it keeps you interested – for a while.
And that’s the problem. There isn’t enough here to keep your head in the music for the duration. The nine-minute “Tin Angel” attempts to be one of those Dylan stories like “Joey” or “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” that can sometimes make you sit in your car after pulling into the driveway just to hear what happens, even if you already know. But the repetition of “Tin Angel” wears out its welcome at about the halfway point, and it becomes hard to care about the protagonist. Dylan then takes 14 minutes to tell his surrealistic version of the Titanic story on the title track. His attempts to add references to Titanic films and other non sequiturs to an Irish tune that sounds like it could well have been written the year the boat sank seem misplaced. And when it comes to Titanic, we’ve reached a point of oversaturation with the story, so having Dylan sing 45 verses about it (really) with no chorus or bridge, is more repetition than we can bear. This is not “Desolation Row” with its strange visions and odd characters, it’s a songwriting exercise gone awry. Even Tempest’s shorter songs such as “Long and Wasted Years,” which sounds vaguely like “Brownsville Girl,” feel like they’ve been done before, but with more imagination and a younger man’s voice.
And we can’t avoid the topic of Dylan’s disintegrating pipes, which on Tempest make him sound like David Johansen after three packs of Pall Malls. It’s at its worst on “Pay in Blood,” a song that could have been culled from Oh Mercy-era Dylan. He sings from the perspective of the thief and killer who’s still standing; perhaps the voice is meant to be part of the character, but it makes the listener want to get him a lozenge. The singer of “Idiot Wind” sounded infinitely angrier than this strange, growling man.
The other inevitable by-product of a new Dylan album is the questions about how long he’ll keep this up. Some have posited that the title Tempest is a Shakespearean hint that this is his final album (The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play). Dylan responded as if we were all ignorant children, observing that the play was called The Tempest and his album is just Tempest, as if that explained everything. It’s this ability to surprise and amuse us – as he did with the jarringly violent video for “Duquesne Whistle,” Tempest’s first single - that keeps us entertained and coming back. Hopefully he has better surprises for us in the future.