Bob Dylan’s thirty-fifth album, “Tempest,” has been out for over a week which has given critics ample opportunity to engage in the periodic and tiresome exercise of acceptance. Acceptance that The Minstrel’s instrument is shot after half a century of inspiring students, workers, civil rights activists, misanthropes, mothers, garbage men and attorneys. Acceptance that the songs are too long. Acceptance that as critics, they have no choice but to judge every new record against his legendary back catalog and to group each track into further categories, (belonged on previous album; belonged on future Bootleg Session box set; vaguely reminiscent of “John Wesley Harding;” a gem that can stand among the cream of his late career). Acceptance that the album may well be the coda of Dylan’s life’s work. Acceptance of the album itself, because even though it isn’t “Blonde On Blonde,” it isn’t “Down In The Groove” either. Acceptance of the curmudgeonly, withered old bluesman persona that Dylan has cultivated over the past ten or fifteen years; but then again, maybe that persona isn’t cultivated at all, maybe it’s just Dylan accepting what he always saw himself to be.
Among the criticisms of “Tempest” has been the fact that the shuffling blues numbers that seemed classic, yet vibrant and fresh on “Love And Theft,” still cool on “Modern Times,” and boring and silly by “Together Through Life” are not getting any better and it doesn’t help that “Tempest’s” opener is a leftover from that Robert Hunter co-written effort. Clearly, Dylan has no interest in participating in any sort of new sound. There will be no Dylan album produced by Danger Mouse. Thank God for that.
And so what remains is the peculiar image of late Dylan, a sort of Americana, a la forgotten scoundrel with a constant Victrola soundtrack in his mind and on his lips. That, and the themes and images we have always loved: religion, travel, vitality, love, loss, death.
It’s violence that stands out on this album, the sort of violence that is a side-effect of living. We heard this idea last spring on Jack White’s “Blunderbuss.” White sings of love that will “roll over me slowly,” “slam my fingers in the doorway,” “make me murder my own mother.” The only way to be truly moved by love is for it to hurt and leave damage and mutilation behind. “Tempest” sees the world the same way, and yet the difference is that for White, the narrator is the subject of the violence, whereas for Dylan the narrator is detached from the suffering he observes in the way of the omniscient narrators of 19th Century novels or Civil War soldiers around a campfire.
In the video for “Duquesne Whistle,” a young man finds himself brutally beaten following an unfortunate series of events stemming from his efforts to impress a girl. All the while, Dylan and his crew are walking the streets and finally happen upon the guy in a bloody heap. They simply step over him, completely indifferent. Here, brutality is not only a part of love, but so intertwined with it that even its literal manifestation comes as no surprise. The old bluesman, having survived plenty doesn’t sympathize. Maybe that part of him is dead; itself a casualty of violent love. He knows what he is; he is just as aware of his limited capacity to empathize as he, like any bluesman is aware of, say his sexual prowess. As he says in “Narrow Way,” “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me.”
“Long And Wasted Years,” a spoken word narrative over a simple repeated blues line is “Tempest’s” fulcrum. The track harkens the mercurial “Brownsville Girl” or “Highlands” for its epic quality, and like those tracks there seems to be a personal subtext, but “Long And Wasted Years” lays the groundwork for the age-old tales to come. The narrator has loved, he’s lost, he’s regretted, and all that remains is memory. This is precisely the predicament that allows him to occupy the role of storyteller, static in time and space, objective and reliable even if narrating in the first-person. The song may or may not be autobiographical but somehow we can all relate to the idea that so much happens beyond our control, our reach or even our awareness. As the narrator laments, “I think my back was turned / And the world behind me burned.”
On the second or third listen, it’s “Tin Angel” that stands out. The ominous banjo sends us straight to the heavy, sinister mood we heard ten years ago with “High Water” and the scene is set for a tale of 19th century American betrayal, lost-faith and murder. We feel something strong listening to a song like this, cathartic to be sure, but it’s the time warp that really gets you. The listener finds himself swept into the lawless spirit of frontier justice and it’s as exhilarating as it is sombre. This is, after all, a world we can only imagine and piece together from what we’ve read and seen depicted in movies, and of course, heard in the old songs that inspired this one.
In the eponymous track we are even further removed from the actual experience of suffering. Dylan, in writing a sprawling account of the Titanic is recalling an instance of suffering to which the Twenty-First Century listener must attach an element of sentimentality and romance. It’s no accident that he summons the image of Leo and his sketchbook—pure Hollywood fiction. This is not a song about the actual sinking of the Titanic, but as with that movie starring Gregory Peck in “Brownsville Girl,” the romanticized, Hollywood lens through which we understand the idea of the Titanic is the madeleine that unlocks the memory of the much greater story of Human Pain.
How odd, then, to end the album with a tribute to John Lennon. Again, Lennon’s death is something that we have had ample time to deal with. “Roll On, John” probably hits closer to home for boomers who were moved by Lennon’s work when it was new, but for those of us born after 1980, Lennon’s tragic death is just another part of the entire legacy of The Beatles. For Millennials, the great music coexists with the stories of Hamburg, Ed Sullivan, Yoko, India, The Breakup and Lennon’s death. The giant idea of “The Beatles” is something which we have made our own, not something that defines our generation. “Come Together” is just another song on my iPod. “Roll On John,” recalling so many of Lennon’s lyrics and influences remains a part of his greater mythology. It connects for me, not on the level of a friend lost, but of a cultural tragedy, move violent evidence of the vicious irony of life— Lennon represented peace and yet he died a brutal, premature death.
Dylan has always been a translator. He absorbs the same information you and I absorb, information about the world he lives in, the people he meets, the places he goes. Then he articulates it in his own language which is itself, constructed by a musical history which we also have access to; you can listen to every one of Dylan’s influences. Listen to every recording of American music and beyond. This is the material behind what Dylan does; we can identify it, we can track it, we can listen to him talk about it. Still that is only a small part of the equation. What has always interested listeners about Dylan is the man behind the music. Critics and fans grasp for connections between symbolic imagery and Dylan’s life at the time. Would we see “Blood On The Tracks” the same way without seeing it as his chronicle of the unraveling of Dylan’s marriage to Sarah Lowndes? Would we listen to “Slow Train Coming” without being able to imagine a crucifix around his neck? Dylan has tried in various ways to run away from these analyses. While he can’t help but put himself into his music and his various adopted personae, he seems now, in the twilight of his life, intent of divorcing himself from it inasmuch as possible. Maybe this separation is what sequesters him to the refuge of the American standards. Maybe he’s keeping himself safe, or maybe he’s just enjoying one last, loving scoff to get the hippies off his lawn and the A.J. Weberman’s out of his garbage once and for all.
Or maybe he just wants to tell a story.