On his 35th studio album, Bob Dylan declaims in the old, epic mode. A new, if appropriately pre-faded, anthology of anti-heroic narratives, Tempest sets a lengthy stream of swiping, understated action—much of it described in a self-implicating, first-person voice—to simpleton roots rock. Much like his 1976 near-masterpiece Desire, the album pays homage to the sinister, protracted plots of prewar folk, and represents a welcome retreat from the fuzzily declarative lyrics of his last two releases. (We’ll ignore, for the sake of convenience and sanity, the Christmas-themed clunker.) Furthermore, there are no “garbage clowns” or “sheet metal memor[ies]” on this picaresque, hour-plus set; the tabloid murders, steam-ejaculating trains, and disloyal lovers demand more prosaic representation. Appropriately, this is Dylan at his most morbidly literal and his most syntactically cockeyed: Both the title track’s shipwreck and the album’s darkly commemorative release date portend disaster, while the final song is a tribute to John Lennon without much subtext; awkwardly inverted lines throughout like “To come this way was by no means wise” suggest the rhythmic, turn-of-the-century cynicism of Robert W. Service.
Indeed, as with so much of even the songwriter’s most banal output, many pockets of fetching language feel drawn from some obscure source, or one hidden in plain sight, though attempting to unravel this pastiche—one of Dylan’s lumpiest—may preclude admiration of its crude, sum effect. Some allusions are easily fingered: The lengthy, bloody love ballad “Tin Angel” is an obvious, if elegant, rewrite of “Matty Groves,” and “Narrow Way” interpolates lines from a Mississippi Sheiks standard. Others, however, require free-associating to match up. Is that a sly reference to Gravity’s Rainbow in the uptempo opener, “Duquesne Whistle”? As in the inaugural sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, metaphors confuse the sexual with the dangerously explosive: “Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart…You’re like a time-bomb in my heart….” Does “Scarlet Town,” the subject of which is described ominously as “under the hill,” consciously echo John Gould Fletcher’s visceral verb-list “Natchez Under the Hill”?
More importantly, does it matter? Dylan’s lyric sheets have been impossible to scrutinize since the ’70s without sounding like a second-rate term paper, unless you happen to have Luc Sante’s encyclopedic ear for folk morphology. Tempest’s shaggy-dog quatrains, which aren’t sensual enough to be read with pleasure, will be picked clean by the artist’s apologists; when the interpretative dust settles, however, the album’s grubby, bitter tone and wildly lucid vocal performances may favorably distinguish it from the post-war paradise of Modern Times or Together Through Life’s Cajun affectations.
Tempest’s half-bluesy, half-balladic melodies may lack the rusty trinket warmth of those earlier LPs’ highlights; the conspicuous central riff of “Long and Wasted Years,” for instance, can’t compare to the similarly plaintive, descending theme of “Spirit on the Water.” And the backing band, augmented again by David Hidalgo’s accordion and violin, sound incongruously clean against the vicissitudes of their employer’s parched larynx. But Dylan’s rudimentary—sometimes numbingly so—arrangements are effectively grotesque. Underselling his own compositional gifts and the dexterity of his musicians, he invites us to wallow in Tempest’s sheer lack of charm. On the scraggy, if strophic-to-a-fault, “Tin Angel,” he dumbs down his accompaniment to a steady, time-keeper hi-hat and eerily soft banjo drones that build to a never-arriving climax; rolling triplets clutter the show-stopping title track’s standard time signature and rock-solid folk chords, rocking us gently through a bleak retelling of the Titanic’s downfall that emphasizes man’s ultimate ignobility in the face of death. Dylan’s own very audible and grungy keyboard playing meanwhile offers the adenoidal, kazoo-like soarings of his voice a soft midrange in which to land.
And that voice. Whether one abhors or merely tolerates Dylan’s latter-day pitch-scrapes, his prosody here is that of a clearly trained storyteller. The stagey, jabbed iambs (“They might be dead by now!”) and hissing sibilants (“I’m gonna have to take my head, and bury it between your breasssssssts”) relish their own tale’s cheapness so much that our approval of it is hardly necessary. Which isn’t to say that the pleasure the performer takes in his own work is mere hubris; the syncopated breath that splits the line “Then she pierced him to the heart and his blood did flow” is simply good, old-fashioned theater.
Such flourishes have made the final stretch of Dylan’s career arguably his most graspable. From the printed page, his poetry provokes the same loony, head-scratching exegesis it always did, but his recitational-style crooning begs us to leave it be, and absorb the story though grunts and glottal stops and smeared notes; his verse no longer competes with the irreproducible “moments” of musicianship caught on his albums. Dylan’s crucial actorliness, too, has become far less cryptic; once famous for his inventory of impish personas, he’s now settled on the role of the seasoned, exuberant performer on stage, radio, and disc. Whether or not it’s intended with such postmodern irony, this crustily hammy, crowd-pleasing side of Dylan is one of his most satisfying.
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