One thing I’ll say off the bat about Bob Dylan’s new record Tempest—I’ve never heard an album by a 71-year-old musical icon sound less like someone trying desperately (and in vain) to hang on to past glories. At the very least, the 35th (!) album by America’s dark troubadour presents the listener with the same amount of passion, color and oomph as the early work that first established Dylan as the legend he is today.
What I’m trying to say is that Tempest isn’t some feeble attempt by Dylan to prove he’s still “got it.” That wouldn’t be Dylan’s style, anyhow. If this record had been released 20, 30 or 35 years ago, it would still stand up against Blood On the Tracks, Highway 61 Revisited, or most of Dylan’s other work. Not that it’s an instant classic (lest someone shout at me, “No WAY does Tempest come CLOSE to [insert favorite Dylan record]!”). Just that it doesn’t show any sign that Dylan’s candle is flickering. In fact the only thing about this record that sort of reveals his age is his increasingly raspy voice—which considering Dylan never could sing, could be as much the effect of cigarettes as age.
Having established that, let’s look at the other side of things. When you’ve covered as much creative ground as Bob Dylan has over the years, it becomes increasingly difficult to come up with something new and surprising. When it became known that Dylan was working with Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, speculation ensued that the new record would venture into Latin territory; as it stands, Tempest stays firmly in the musical territory of Bob Dylan’s previous dozen records or so: a pleasant blend of blues, folk, rock and swing. Familiar, too, is the ballad format where Dylan rattles off a seemingly endless string of verses on songs lasting 7-10 minutes long (the title track caps off at 15 minutes).
Steadfast as it is in recognizable territory, what makes this record good is the simple fact that Bob Dylan is able to stay in familiar territory and still make it interesting, after all these years. It doesn’t matter whether you understand the sometimes cryptic nature of his lyrics, or how long the song is—it’s still poetic, and we frequently find ourselves transfixed, anxious to hear what is coming next.
Content-wise, Tempest is a rather dark album, overall—not that Dylan is particularly known for flowers and sunshine. The opening track “Duquesne Whistle,” with its hopping swing style, I dare say is the happiest-sounding tune on the record. After that, Dylan allows his unflinching propensity for the dark and occasionally ugly to flow freely, to the point that it borders on the macabre and morbid, punctuated with just enough tongue-in-cheekiness to make it palatable. “Tin Angel,” for example, tells a 9-minute story of a love triangle ending in murder/suicide, with dozens of four-line verses and no chorus—played over one minor chord—and it’s absolutely captivating. You wouldn’t want to meet the vengeful character Dylan portrays in “Pay In Blood” (“I’ll pay in blood / But not my own”). The album’s centerpiece title track “Tempest” is an epic, 45-verse retelling of the Titanic disaster that somehow references Leonardo DiCaprio by name (“Leo took his sketchbook”) without being too campy. And the record closes with “Roll On, John,” a touching homage to John Lennon.
Overall, despite its dark corners, I have to say Tempest left me with a feeling of satisfaction. Not “happy,” mind you, but satisfied, perhaps the way you might feel after a good meal. Bob Dylan has been around longer than most, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. He’s still a master artist, poet and songwriter, and he continues to produce art deserving of respect on its own merit.