Monday, September 17, 2012

album review: 'tempest' by bob dylan

It's really hard to review Bob Dylan.

I mean, where do you start? What frame of reference should you use? Bob Dylan isn't just one of the best artists of all time, he's also one of the most prolific, with a huge share of great music and a fair share of the awful as well. He's one of the best, most impacting songwriters of the past generation, and any bearded indie rocker owes at least something to the man, now fully in the autumn of his life.

And speaking as someone who isn't completely familiar with every album and every live cut and every one of the hundreds of bootlegs that Dylan produced, I feel more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer weight of history behind the man, even more so because he's a fantastic writer and poet and musician one that I admire tremendously. For god's sake, I can look ninety degrees to my right from my kitchen table and see a framed poster of the man!

So I guess it can't hurt to provide a little context to where I'm coming from when I write this review, at least when it comes to my 'Dylan' experience. Well, here it is: it's painfully limited. I'm familiar with his hits - everyone should be - and I can thank my uncle for getting me to listen to Infidels, which Dylan's first legitimately great album of the 80s. From there, it's Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited, and really not much else. To say I feel out of my depth stepping into a review of his most recent album, particularly when I'm not even all that familiar with his material this decade, isn't hard to believe.

But then again, Bob Dylan, of all the albums and artists I've ever reviewed, has always been a poet first (musician second, singer third). And I have a literary background, which does provide some applicable skills to assess and analyse the man's work. And of all of the artists I've examined so far, I feel the least compunctions in branding this man's work 'art'. And art earns some of its worth and meaning due to the experience and interpretation of the viewer - and since we're all different, no one person's view (with the exception of the artist, because the whole 'death of the artist' theory is a load of horseshit) is sacrosanct.

So yes, while I will admit that not being familiar with Dylan's entire discography or indeed the majority of it adds something of an asterisk to my review and criticism, I do know good music. I know good poetry. And I can recognize good art when I see it. 

And without further ado, let's examine Bob Dylan's newest album, Tempest.


For starters, let's address the title of the album. Since this is Dylan's thirty-fifth album, you can see the obvious parallel: nothing other than The Tempest, the final play of William Shakespeare. And if it was any other artist, I'd hammer on this as monumentally arrogant - but this is Bob Dylan, and considering the tales he crafts on his songs, the 'Shakespearean' dramas he recreates on some tracks, and considering this is his thirty-fifth album... well, it fits. I'll accept it. Of course, like Dylan himself, Shakespeare had his ups and downs as well. After all, we're only human.

And of course, Dylan himself rejects this viewing - as he should, as one shouldn't compare oneself to Shakespeare, but rather let history decide that. But the other point is that the album really doesn't lend itself to Shakespearean comparisons - unlike The Tempest, one of the few of the Bard's plays where nobody dies, Dylan doesn't have nearly such compunctions and dives headfirst into the dark and morbid. Part of this is linked to Dylan's age - he's clearly contemplating the inevitability of death, and reflection upon both death and life is a major theme of the album.

Take the first track, 'Duquesne Whistle', a surprisingly jaunty tune that uses the metaphor of the constant call of a train whistle to represent the call to board the final stretch of one's life. The symbol doesn't immediately gain poignancy until late in the track, where it's a legitimate gut-punch that reminded me some of 'Thunder On The Mountain' and most of 'The Green, Green Grass Of Home', an old country tune from the mid-60s. And like that song, it shows acceptance of death as the natural next step in one's life, instead of raging against going into that good night. For a man like Dylan, who spent so much of his best years bitterly angry, it's a surprisingly mature and sad moment.

Of course, Dylan isn't always mature, as is evident on the second track 'Soon After Midnight'. Here, Dylan drops back into the gleeful mindset of young Romeo as he speaks of young love and fairy queens - and then you reach the telegraphed punchline, that Dylan is still an old man, and he's speaking of harlots, not of damsels. But he still defends their honour with impressive rigour and surprising sincerity. It reminded me of Mickey Rourke's character Randy The Ram in the superb Darren Aronofsky film The Wrestler and his relationship with the stripper in the best possible way - there's a harsh reality to the tryst, but there's surprising sweetness there as well. 

At this point, one has to mention Bob Dylan's delivery on these songs. The man is infamous for his legendarily hoarse and grating voice, straining to stay on any vestige of the right key, but here it has decayed even further, picking up the affectations of Tom Waits or Johnny Cash in his later years. If you're a fan of either artist's delivery, Dylan's won't disappoint - he's raspy, his voice cracks and sputters and strains, but he still manages to deliver eons more emotion that hacks like Jason Mraz and Jack Johnson and John Mayer can ever hope to. Most of it is because Dylan's actually a talented song writer. 

This is proven with the next song, 'Narrow Way'. Initially, the song seems rather hokey, a sardonic love song to a girl who has long blown Dylan off as beneath her. But in context, this doesn't make a lot of sense, particularly considering that while Dylan has been bitter about breakups in the past, he hasn't really been spurned in this manner for decades. And then you realize that the song has a much broader scope: he's not speaking to a woman, he's speaking to America, in the guise of Lady Liberty herself. Dylan's always been political, and his first political song on the album comes disguised a country ditty. Granted, as a political song, it's a tough one to interpret, although it's clear that Dylan's opinions on the woman in question range between admiration and naked disgust - which makes sense, given Dylan's complicated political leanings over the years. Overall, the song seems a bittersweet farewell, with emphasis on the bitter - Dylan has long resigned that he'll never be the model citizen, so he taunts Lady Liberty that she might hope to 'work down to his level someday'. But in the end, he doesn't have much hope that she'll get there.

And this bitterness definitely carries over into the next song, 'Long And Wasted Years', a song about a failed marriage. In my opinion, the only way this song really works is because Dylan nails the bitter, sorrowful, yet glib delivery of the weary man in the couple so well, because the songwriting is pretty what you'd expect from Dylan. Some of the metaphors are clever, particularly regarding a train (a recurring motif, and one that really fits Dylan's style), but it's somewhat formulaic, lacking the true hit to make it anything all that special. Don't get me wrong, it's good Bob Dylan, but it isn't great.

The next track, however, returns to the political edge and doesn't hold back. Here, the biting and spiteful lyrics show Dylan's absolute contempt for the politicians of today, juxtaposed nicely against a rather pleasant tune. Dylan doesn't mince words or dance around issues here - there's a directness to the song that's refreshing, to say the least. And yet, as much as I like this song, I can't help but think it lacks a certain degree of nuance. It's bellicose and spiteful and recalls Dylan's political songs of decades before, but it doesn't quite land the impact, partially because the lyrics imply Dylan is stepping into more of a role of the unheard herald, or, to be significantly less poetic, your grandfather hoarsely railing at the government without context or deeper explanation. It's biting, but once again, it's not great.

Fortunately, Dylan definitely manages to redeem himself with the next track, 'Scarlet Town'. Not going to lie, this is my favourite track on the entire album, and it works so goddamn well because every element of the song fits. The melody is dark and bleak, Dylan's delivery is hushed and raspy, and the lyrics are both descriptive and frighteningly poignant in their methodical exploration - and evisceration - of small-town, 'Red-State' America and its 'values'. Now, I've seen works of 'art' attempt this before (the one that stands out most starkly in my mind is Ken Park, and if you're one of the five people who read this who have seen that film (if you haven't, DON'T), you understand), but none with such depth and intensity. I mean, in the first verse, Dylan attacks the notion of 'peace and unity' within such towns, the push for conformity, and the racism you see all too often in such areas. What works here is that Dylan, despite his obvious loathing for elements of this culture, is that he still identifies somewhat with it. He grew up in small-town America, he gets the culture and to some degree there's a wistful longing in his verse for the better elements of that culture, such as the 'love thy neighbour' honesty often absent in the coastal cities. But those moments of reflection and wistfulness don't come without a brutal dissection of the nastier side of those towns, and 'Scarlet Town' easily proves to be both one of Dylan's darkest and strongest tracks in a long time.

From that point, it's difficult to see how Dylan could top that song - but even without that, 'Early Roman Kings' isn't very good. It's got a maddeningly catchy tune with very solid instrumentation, but the lyrics are just disappointingly bland. Sure, they're descriptive and colourful, but it becomes very obvious very quickly that Dylan's just talking about an old New York Gang (primarily of Puerto Ricans) called the Roman Kings - and he's not really saying anything about them other than describing them. There's no punchline here, and it's a shame, because obscure history, particularly crime history, lends itself so damn well to the sleazy, smoky epics that cemented Dylan as such a masterful storyteller.

Fortunately, we get one of these sleazy smoky epics with 'Tin Angel', which is another dark, bleak song about the bloody fallout of a love triangle with Shakespearean results. And it's bleak, bloody, loaded with potent rage and emotion, filled with classic misunderstandings and high-handed drama. Not going to lie, I'm something of a sucker for stories like these, particularly when they're constructed as well as Dylan does here, but even without that, the song has a visceral energy as Death claims all three targets.

And then we come to the title track, 'Tempest', a massive fourteen minute epic song about the sinking of the Titanic, the kind of song Bob Dylan could nail in his sleep, describing the chaos and the emotion and all of the associated Death and drama that go with it...

And I couldn't be more disappointed. I won't be so harsh and say the song is boring - Dylan's a great lyricist, and his poetry redeems that much - but it's awfully trite and bland, lacking any sort of presence or power or even real emotion. Part of this comes to the source material: Dylan references James Cameron's Titanic, a movie I have a lot of difficulty tolerating, but while Dylan references the narrative of that film, he ignores the epic scope of the music and the emotions and passions. Strangely, Dylan chooses not to tell the taie in chronological order, getting to the destruction of the ship fairly quickly before delving into multiple mindsets on the story - and to be honest, it doesn't work. Instead of gripping us with the tragedies of the people who died, they come across as a list, a coda to a bizarrely emotionless retelling of the story. Now part of me wonders if the emotional distance is intentional, pointing out how such an event has become trivialized through the decades of history, but I still don't quite buy that, considering just how iconic that event remains in the public conscience. If he's seeking to erase that, this bland and over-long dirge isn't going to change much of anything.

Fortunately, Dylan does redeem himself with a final solid track, 'Roll On John'. It's an ode to John Lennon from Bob Dylan, and it's exactly what you'd expect from such a track, given Dylan's state of mind. Unsurprisingly, it's melancholic, and filled with lyrical excerpts and references to Lennon's work, both with and without the Beatles - and as such, interpretation of the song is tricky work. As it is, my interpretation is a bit different then most - while I will accept that it's something of a tribute to John Lennon, it also seems to be a stark message about how Lennon the man has been swallowed up by Lennon the artist, completely defined by his creative body of work. Now one might think Dylan's doing something of the same thing, until you realize that Dylan actually knew John Lennon, and the men were inspirations to each other: Dylan chose the references he did because his tribute not only serves to redefine Lennon - not so much as a legend, but very much as a man and a friend - but also to reveal a surprising truth about Dylan himself.

In fact, 'Roll On John', while not being my top song on this album, still remains high on the list because of the superb work it does tying the themes of the album together. Dylan, throughout Tempest, is writing about Death and moving on in a variety of contexts. In nearly every song, there are references to the passage of time and death, either explicitly or implicitly. Even in 'Early Roman Kings', Dylan is singing about a gang of the past, of such iconic imagery that they're still remembered today - not for anything they might have done, but for the superficial trappings, their style. And in 'Roll On John', you see Dylan's primal fear, the central guiding thesis of the entire piece: even though Bob Dylan is a living legend of music, he doesn't want to be defined as that. Unlike John Lennon, whose legacy and creative body of work has come to define the man in the public eye, Dylan doesn't want to be remembered just for his music or his message, but as a man in his own right, his music and legacy shaping the man but not overwhelming him. That's how Dylan can speak with such calmness about his own passing: he knows he'll be remembered, but he wants to specify how that memory is preserved after he's gone. He shuns the Shakespearean comparison not just out of humility, but because he wants to be remembered after his passing as a man, not as some untouchable legend.

And this is a powerful thesis indeed, one that completely crushes the 'death of the author' theory in establishing that one should remember men by who they were, not just by what they created or the legacy they built. It implies that the art Dylan crafted over five decades should be viewed in the context of the man, a view he's held for a long time (given his vehement reaction when told by a reporter that she 'liked' Blood on the Tracks, a break-up album Dylan found profoundly painful). In Tempest, this view is on full display, as the songs he's written here all speak in some way about who Bob Dylan is, as a person. In the best moments, like on 'Soon After Midnight' and 'Scarlet Town' and 'Roll On John', you see intensely personal glimpses into the man, autobiographical in context if not direct message. They're intended to contextualize the man, not his legacy - and in that element, they succeed brilliantly.

I'm not going to lie, I really, really liked this album, even despite the fact it's not an easy listen. Dylan has produced one of his best albums in decades, held together by strong tracks and an even stronger thesis. While it's not perfect, and maybe not even my favourite album of the year, it's still an excellent album, and a prime example of a master singer-songwriter at his best. If you're a fan of Bob Dylan, this is a must-own, and it's easily one of his best. But even if you're not a fan, it's still a powerful and poignant record of an old man trying - and succeeding - to direct his legacy in the coda of his life. 

And I think it's appropriate to end this review/essay - because I appreciate some irony - with some appropriate lines from Shakespeare's The Tempest:

"And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free."

2 comments:

  1. I agree, not an easy listen at all. But it is definetly better than his last studio album and his Christmas album.

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  2. Công ty trên 5 người có phải thành lập công đoàn không?
    dịch vụ quyết toán thuế tại hà nội
    học kế toán trên phần mềm misa
    học kế toán xây dựng
    dịch vụ báo cáo tài chính vay vốn ngân hàng
    1. Bản sao giấy phép đăng ký kinh doanh có chứng thực thời gian gần nhất.

    ReplyDelete