Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review of Bob Dylan 2012 studio album 'Tempest'

The big question mulling around the heads of Dylan fans for the last few months was - would ‘Tempest’ live up to the hype? Well, now that the album has been released, does it?

For me, yes of course it does (did you expect anything else?!) I’ve listened to it maybe 5 or 6 times in the last 3 days, in many locations and on many devices – vinyl, headphones, in the car, iPod etc, and the album works amazingly well in all of those settings.

Firstly, it’s just a great listen and is a surprisingly complex and luxurious album, sound wise making 2009’s ‘Together Through Life’ seem a bit rushed and insubstantial by comparison. For me, it’s at least as good as ‘Modern Times’ (2006), Love & Theft (2001) and even ‘Time out of Mind’ (1997) – his three critically acclaimed albums since his so called ‘beginning in the late ‘90s’ comeback.

One critic ‘complained’ about how rootsy the album is and how far he has strayed from his ‘60s template – the period where he played a major part in creating modern rock music. My thought’s would be that pretty much ALL his albums since 1992’s ‘Good as I Been To You’ have been rootsy in one way or another, and that’s been 20 years, hence -nearly half his career. It’s just what he does now. And he’s never stopped very long in one exact genre now has he? - as soon as he’s done with something or mastered something (be it folk, rock, singer-songwriter, country, gospel etc) he’s done with it, keeps it in his arsenal and moves on. Albeit his best work is usually informed by his past experiences as a musician, as well as being informed by the artists who influenced him originally, many of whom are from the decades BEFORE the 60s. As he said himself, he is much more of a 1950s creature than a 1960s creature, and he’s got to play what he’s feeling, and this is what he’s been feeling in recent years.

And this album has the pre-rock era written all over it. Like Love & Theft (and Modern Times to a lesser extent) it is an exercise in pre’60s genres. But with (arguably) stronger songs than those albums (‘Mississippi’, ‘Workingman’s Blues’ and ‘Nettie Moore’ excepted). Also, the album is beautifully recorded and is very subtle for a Dylan album, superb musicianship - including exquisite guitar, organ, piano, accordion, fiddles, pedal-steel – all nicely sitting around the ever-versatile drumming of George Recile.

Plus, they really sound like a band, despite the studio setting. This is something Dylan (or Jack Frost, as he calls himself as Producer) and his band first really mastered on Modern Times. Since then the only changes have been swapping Denny Freeman for Charlie Sexton and adding in David Hidalgo (studio only) for some accordion sweetening. Plus, I really think these songs and these arrangements are very much informed by the NET (Never Ending Tour). You can almost picture Bob going in to the studio with these songs and all 7 men working on the arrangements much like they would when rehearsing for tours. I can already see how several of these songs will be just killer live songs.

And, even more importantly, Bob has taken considerable care with his vocals. We all know his voice has not gotten any stronger since the NET heyday (which in my opinion was approximately 1995-2001), but he still makes good use of what is now effectively a ‘growl’ in concert, and on this album it sounds just perfect for the music and songs he has created. You can tell he’s comfortable with this voice now, proof of which is evident in how up-front the vocals are in the mix.

Some other first impressions – no harmonica, no guitar solos really (just lovely ‘fills’ all over the place, and very few choruses (if any?).

As to the lyrics, in my opinion he has written some of his strongest in years for this album, and much less the ‘Dylan-by-rote’ lyrics which have appeared from time to time on his albums since the 80s. He seems to be engaging with the English language in a more innovative (and playful) way than he has in a long time. Themes of death, religion, anger (lots of the songs are very angry sounding!), loss and love abound – but all are interweaved with devilish couplets and black humour, lots of black humour. There are stories that wouldn’t be out of place in Westerns, gangster movies, even horror movies - alongside ballads and love-songs. I don’t know what his overall aim/theme (if any) was with the album, all that springs to mind is perhaps his bemusement/anger at the mess us humans have always made of things along with the general chaos and violence of life and nature. At the end of the review I will list a selection of the lines that stood out to me most on my first listenings.

But before I go in to a song-by –song analysis, can I urge neutral (or nay-sayer) readers to give this album a chance? It is a real ‘full-meal’ of an album and can be enjoyed on many levels, eg just allowing it to wash over you as a gorgeous exercise in pre-rock music, with great production, enjoyable lyrics, classic rasping Dylan vocals, danceable uptempo numbers, pleasant ballads and a few epics thrown in as well. It really sounds like Bob and band were having fun recording it, and it is definitely fun to listen to. Is it a masterpiece, on the level of, say, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966)? No, of course not, but it’s an album I will personally enjoy just as much as any of those earlier masterpieces, and if I was forced to rate it as a piece of work, well let’s just say it’s knocking on the door of my Top 10 Dylan albums.

‘Duquesne Whistle’. Excellent little opening train number. Should work well live. As with quite a few songs on the album there are all sorts of types of music in here – country, jazz, western swing, rockabilly. Interestingly Bob is playing organ on it (not piano, like he mainly plays on stage now, since this summer). Very reminiscent of the ‘Love and Theft’ album.

‘Soon After Midnight’. Gorgeous old-fashioned 1950s country-pop ballad with nice Sun records style guitar licks over a loping rhythm. It’s this album’s ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ and that’s no bad thing.

‘Narrow Way’. Along with ‘Duquesne Whistle’ it is this album’s ‘Summer Days/Thunder on Mountain/Levee Gonna Break’ etc. This is a classic blues-rock or jump-blues number with a great slicing riff which really really swings and should be a highly energetic live number.

‘Long & Wasted Years’. A lovely talk/sing number. Reminds me slightly of ‘Brownsville Girl’ even though it’s a highly original number in its own right. It’s short too, but makes its point. Great vocal on this one.

‘Pay In Blood’. Bob doing the Rolling Stones and doing it very well. Excellent rock song, excellent vocals. Possibly could have done with a chorus, but I can see him playing nice harmonica fills in between the verses if he does it live.

‘Scarlet Town’. The most folky song on the album. Reminiscent of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ and as with that number is a song I admire more than enjoy. Gillian Welch comes to mind.

‘Early Roman Kings’. Well, it wouldn’t be a Dylan album without at least one electric blues song, this time a Muddy Waters inspired 12 bar romp through some strong lyrics about gangsters (possibly!). Interesting to see the accordion so prominent and effective in a song like this.

‘Tin Angel’. Maybe my 2nd favourite song on the album. Very strong mid-paced declamatory story-style son. Musically it is perhaps influenced by his recent live arrangements for ‘Blind Willie McTell’ and ‘Man in the Long Black Coat’. Very good lyrics, which you can just see him spitting out in a live context, centre stage. It’s a fabulous old-timey yarn, all sorts of things going on and a very nasty ending! Other songs it reminds me of are ‘Isis’ and ‘Arthur McBride’. One review I read also mentioned ‘Black Jack Davey’ – which supports my vague (!) theory that all this really began with ‘Good as I Been to You’

‘Tempest’. Well, what can I say about this number. A 14 minute 45-verse sea-shanty song about the Titanic?! Played in a slightly sentimental and over-the-top style! Is it original? Is it any good? Do I like it? Well, yes, actually – it’s probably my favourite song on the album. There is something extremely charming, warm and likeable about this song. It’s stately, but very catchy, his phrasing is exquisite – over the backing of guitars, piano, fiddle and pedal steel. Based apparently to some extent on a Carter Family song, it’s a bit like the old fashioned (pre TV news) method of writing a song about a recent event, almost like journalism – albeit in this case from an exact 100 year distance! The melody and phrasing remind me of ‘Cross the Green Mountain’ an overlooked masterpiece from a few years ago which wasn’t on any official album until it got a release on the ‘Tell Tale Signs’ collection. 3 days in, and I can’t stop playing it. Would love to see it live!

‘Roll on John’. Well, this was a song I badly wanted to like. I mean, Bob writing a tribute song to my first musical hero (John Lennon) and also it’s the closing song on one of his strongest albums for years. Well, I do like it, but just not quite as much as I expected to. But like so much about this album - it’s heartfelt and enjoyable and is quite a nice way to close the album, albeit I think ‘Tempest’ would have been a better closing song.

Final thoughts – the album is a wonderful addition to the canon and what better way to mark Bob’s (un-hyped) 50th anniversary year (it’s 50 years since his first album) than with a fine new studio album (and more endless touring – good shows this year, so far), as compared to the over-hyped way the Rolling Stones are celebrating theirs (with a flabby cash-in greatest hits album and rumoured 4-show high-ticket priced tour). Ok, so the album doesn’t quite have a ‘Visions of Johanna’ or even a ‘Not Dark Yet’, but it’s highly accomplished, extremely consistent and will stand up to years of repeated listening. No weak tracks at all. So, and not wishing to end with any sort of negativity - my advice is - listen to your old Rolling Stones albums, listen to all the old roots music which influenced Bob and led to this extraordinary career and to ‘Tempest’ (and check out his radio shows for a fascinating glimpse in to those influences), but most of all – buy ‘Tempest’ and listen the hell out of it! I’m giving it 9/10 and most likely it will be my album of the year.

As promised, and because I’m impressed with the lyrics so far, I’m going to finish with some of my favourite lines.

‘Two-timing Slim
Who’s ever heard of him?’

‘I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes
There are secrets in them I can’t disguise’

‘Man can’t live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own’

‘If love is a sin, then beauty’s a crime
All things are beautiful in their time,
The black and white, the yellow and brown
It’s all right in front of you in Scarlet town’

‘All the early Roman Kings in their shark-skin suits
Bow-ties and buttons, high-top boots
Driving the spikes in, blazing the rails
Nailed in their coffins in top-hats and tails’

‘Ding-dong Daddy, you’re coming up short
Gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court’

‘I’ll have no more of this insulting chat
The devil can have you, I’ll see to that
Look sharp or step aside
Or in the cradle you’ll wish you had died’

By Ken Cowley (2012)
Please visit my website and consider buying my autobiographical e-book on my experience of the Irish financial crisis, and my response to it, with plenty of coverage of things I am passionate about, such as music and running.


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