There was, in 2012, a tempest of excitement whipped up by Bob Dylan’s new album and it may be time to re- assess the album in the light of several years of Frank Sinatra melancholy and a bit of judicious analysis.
There’s no doubt that there are strains of ‘vintage’ Dylan in the record. The excitement may be due to the revival of certain Dylanesque phrases and tones which were reminiscent at times of some of the best work. The best songs- Pay in Blood, Long and Wasted Years and Tempest itself have echoes of Idiot Wind, If You See Her Say Hello and Black Diamond Bay and there is some great phrasing (‘If I hurt you baby I apologise’), some amusing asides (‘The rich man Mister Astor’) and a lot of rage: ‘I’ll drag his corpse through the mud’ etc. But there’s no doubting the fact that the phlegmy, ruined voice is difficult to listen to at times and I find myself drifting off during ‘Narrow Way’, ‘Tin Angel’ and ‘Early Roman Kings’ where the banality of the music is too repetitive to sustain attention.
Dylan has never really ‘arranged’ songs- there are few variations of pace and intensity in his work where the musical setting is really the base for the words- he could never have produced Bohemian Rhapsody– and here the basic grooves go on and on with a kind of hypnotic effect. We have to face the fact that Bob can actually be quite boring these days, especially in concert. Do you really want to stand in a field in the rain, having paid £65 to listen to a Highway 61/Summer Days and Early Roman Kings medley? Could you really enjoy it if he did Tempest in concert after Stuck Inside of Mobile and Forgetful Heart? Some can- I know. I can’t, and won’t be going to see him again unless he plays a folk club in Wolverhampton for a tenner (which is all I can afford given my financial circumstances).
And this begs a bigger question about the wealth-machine that Dylan runs- £65 in, a pint is a fiver at the bar, hot-dogs £7; t-shirts £30; programme £10, de-luxe CD £13. Dylanology has become a wealthy middle-class pursuit and though we may like him or love him, we will never really know the real man (Robert Zimmerman) or what he thinks- the whole thing is a kind of phantasmagoric game, a wizard of Oz spectacle where we pay a fortune to Bob to tell him how great he is and always end up going home from the gigs feeling empty and drained, the albums themselves being a production which really has no living substance. Bob may have some insight into the times but try ringing him to get some help paying your rent and you soon realise there’s nothing there- it’s a machine of worship, a valuable art-form certainly but having no effects upon the reality of your life when it comes to it.
Nevertheless Dylan is an important artist in mass culture- no Shakespeare I think (he has no facility for developing an argument in verse)- but surely the most intelligent singer-songwriter and recording artist in post-war history. He can be a great fantasy companion- the public life-story is fascinatingly interesting with all its breakthroughs and comebacks. The visual images are stunning (he really was very beautiful as a younger man), and the voice is companionable and comforting, strangely, for such a radical artist. I like him a lot, as an icon- I appreciate his jousts with the philistine press and personally I think Street-Legal is a total masterpiece which represents his finest work. I’ve played it an estimated 2000 times and it still gives me a buzz because it does have genuine insight into the coming times and their quantum chaos.
Overall then I think it would be wise to realise that recorded music is a fantasy form- Bob really doesn’t know you exist even though you think he does- and the work has been variable, at times brilliant, at times banal and wretched. Tempest sits in that context. It’s got real oomph in parts, represented another mini-revival and is probably in the end worth the money as an art-object.
But I need to be crude here and finish with a realistic estimate of its worth. In the hierarchy of albums I’d place it about twelfth. In itself, as a recording I’d give it finally a disappointed 6/10.
It would have been a 7, but I hate Roll on John. I don’t need a paean to another millionaire music business icon at this stage in my life. (Imagine is a rotten song.) If he’d finished with something like an updated ‘Sara’ it could have been a lot better. And the cover is completely deranged. What has a Viennese-Athenian river nymph got to do with any of it?