Dylan's Slow Train is in No Hurry on Tempest
The croak of a troubadour who will die if he ever stopped moving cracks through both the pleasant rhythms and bluesy throwaways on "Tempest", Bob Dylan's 35th album. Through the cloak and dagger decades, the most celebrated singer-songwriter of our lifetime has found himself a comfortable nook within the tradition structures of old-time Americana. Juxtaposing Delta blues, New Orleans ragtime, country R&B and swing, Dylan has ridden a high water mark of creativity over the last 15 years. Starting with "Time Out of Mind" and continuing on through "Love and Theft", "Modern Times" and "Together Through Life," Dylan's embarked on a cross country train ride navigating musical territory it seems he was destined to drift into. Yet "Tempest" sees that train beginning to lose just a little bit of steam.
"Duquesne Whistle" opens the record with soft summer lemonade jazz by way of the Mississippi River circa 1938. Dylan's voice creaks out like a corpse emerging from a swampy graveyard on a sunny day. "You say I'm a gambler, you say I'm a pimp, but I ain't neither one," Dylan sings on the track. And he's right; He's both. The songwriter has gambled on his longtime muse of country blues and folk and pimped it out with a mixture of sinister sermon and chicanery charm that only he can provide.
The record continues on like a steamboat lazily floating down the Mississippi. Dylan finds his lyrical inspiration of late in the flutters of an old heart tasting love again anew. "It's after midnight and I don't want nobody but you" he sings in "Soon After Midnight", the album's best cut, a soft ode set to a lyrical slide guitar and a breezy beat that shows Dylan playing to one of his greatest strengths: The melancholy romantic. A wavy tapestry of love and loss plays out as Dylan explains that his "heart is cheerful/it's never fearful." Yet the morbid is never far off from Dylan's vision as he adds a verse concerning a two-timing slim and how he will drag his corpse through the mud. It's this mixture of romance and madness that Dylan plays so well, which has always brought a voodoo vibe with a pulp writer's sense of noir to the music.
Dylan tackles a wide range of topics on "Tempest." "Roll On John," a loose account of John Lennon's life, creeps with a warm heart of praise amid a sparse arrangement. Dylan sings that he "heard the news today, oh boy" as if he wasn't adopting Lennon's immortal opening line to "A Day In The Life" as much as reacting to the news of the singer's death. "Long and Wasted Years" finds Dylan pining for a past love while offering listeners advice on UV rays when he asks, "What are you doing out in the sun anyway? Don't you know the sun can burn your brains out?" (Good looking out, Bob.) On the title track, Dylan spins his web on the tale of the Titanic. Clocking in at almost 14 minutes, the forlorn sea chant gets lost in the details about halfway though and the novelty begins to sink despite the revisionist nod to Leonardo Dicaprio.
Like "Together Through Life," this release includes the obligatory Chicago-style blues throwaways peppered with a few clever couplets tossed in. They aren't weak necessarily (it's difficult to find a Dylan track without at least one quality line), but despite the best efforts from longtime Dylan guitarists Stu Kimball and Charlie Sexton, tracks like "Narrow Way" and "Early Roman Kings," with their roadhouse stomp, sound like tired zombies from some bar band graveyard going at it one more time. It is this style of tune that has permeated the weaker points of Dylan's recent output. Yet as always, one verse takes the song from average to something more powerful. "It a long road, it's a long and narrow way, if I can't work up to you, you'll have to work down to me someday," Dylan sings on "Narrow Way." In any other singer's voice, the lyric would not capture the desolation that Dylan seems so have a stranglehold on. Even on songs with tired rhythms that sit on territory he has mined extensively over the past five albums, Dylan is forever able to sneak a verse in that stands out like laughter at a funeral or death at a wedding.
Throughout his chameleon career, it seems all Dylan really wanted to do, once he shed his various musical epidermises, was be an old blues folk singer. Now that his chronological age has reached the image of his enduring muse, Dylan has come full circle. "I drink my fill and sleep alone, I pay in blood but not my own" Dylan sings in a cracked cadence on "Pay in Blood." Perhaps that is how the 71-year-old songwriter is able to keep going like some Energizer bunny dressed as a strange Civil War Mafioso cowboy singing dirges of violence, passion and tragedy.
"Tempest" doesn't hold up in the second half, falling short of recent classics like "Time out of Mind " and "Modern Times" as a strong salvo coming from an ancient beast. It will never be mentioned among the artist's greatest achievements like "Blonde on Blonde," "Bloods on the Tracks" and "Desire." Yet even though it won't likely be canonized and stalls a times, the self-produced "Tempest" has a menacing charm that sways like a ship of fools stuffed with gamblers, killers and romantics sharing a moment of introspection while drifting down the river in no particular hurry.
Review by E.M.Kaplan.