I'm sitting here trying to imagine someone who has never heard Bob Dylan
(does such a person exist on Earth?) hearing him for the first time on this album. I fear our hypothetical newbie might be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
Dylan has always been pretty edgy, but with Tempest
he has ventured way past the edge, and all but wallows in anger. There's a lot of violence and death, crude sexual innuendo and a few heavy hits at corporate greed. In fact, after the first two tracks -- "Duquesne Whistle" (co-written by Dylan and Robert Hunter
, who was responsible for a lot of Grateful Dead
lyrics) and "Soon After Midnight" -- the rest of this unusually long (68 minutes) album is devoted to themes like the Titanic shipwreck, John Lennon's murder
, and the war of 1812.
Dylan's voice, although it improved after he quit smoking some years ago, now sounds like he has a terrible cold and needs to stop and do some deep coughing. It's almost as if he is playing the role of a 71-year-old man (which he became last May) and doing an imitation of a stereotype old man voice. It sounds like a tractor engine that turns over but won't start, and it is hard to listen to.
But in a way, the aging voice is quite in keeping with what seems to be the overarching theme of the album: the world as seen by a man in his 70s who no longer feels in control of what's going on around him. Will it ever end?
Although the album runs more than hour, it contains just ten tracks. Are you doing the math? Only two of the tracks run less than five minutes, and one (the title track, the never-ending story of Titanic) runs almost 14 minutes. It wouldn't be so bad, except the artist isn't breaking any new ground here, either lyrically or musically.
Understand, I am not a Dylan basher, by any means. This is an artist who, throughout his career, really hasn't cared much about what people (or critics, a few of whom are also people) think of him and his music. I mean, this is the guy who turned two genres (rock and folk) on their ears very early in his career (1965) when he plugged in an electric guitar (on Bringing It All Back Home
and at the '65 Newport Folk Festival) losing him many of his folk followers, but winning the hearts and minds of some non-folky rockers. He has always done things his way, and I respect that.
Ultimately, that's exactly what Tempest
is all about: Dylan being Dylan, doing what strikes him at the moment, public opinion be damned. I would expect nothing else, but taking a page from Dylan's own philosophy on life, I have to be honest in my assessment of this album. It is long and painfully slow, due to the nature of most of the lyrics, and the absence of all but the most basic, non-innovative instrumentation.
You've also got to respect the guy's durability. He released his first album, Bob Dylan
, in 1962. Tempest
is his 35th studio album. A 50 year career of crossing genre lines and making poignant observations about life, love, and what's going on in the world at the moment is unmatched by anyone else, living or dead.
Dylan's legacy, as a songwriter and performer is so well established that one album isn't going to alter it. So, if you're even close to being a Dylan completist, get the album. If your interest is more casual (or academic) sample two or three of the individual tracks via MP3 before committing yourself to the whole thing.