Thirty-five. That’s the number of studio albums Bob Dylan has released since the beginning of his career. That’s more studio albums than the New York Yankees have World Series pennants. That’s more albums than the entire oeuvres of Pink Floyd and the Beatles combined. If you count his live albums, that’s nearly as many albums as there have been presidents in the history of the United States. Dylan’s persistence is nothing if not impressive, but listening to more than ten seconds of Tempest begs the question: why is this man still making music? Are we even listening to Bob Dylan, or to some crepuscular husk of that once-triumphant folk prince (or “jester”, per Don McClean)?
Bob Dylan has made me cry on exactly two separate occasions. The first time was when I heard his lyrical masterpiece, “Mr. Tambourine Man”, which in the third verse reveals itself as one of the most poetically written songs to be recorded in the last hundred years. The second occasion was when I heard Dylan open his mouth on “Duquesne Whistle”, the first track on Dylan’s newly released thirty-fifth album, Tempest. I cried because the man singing was not Bob Dylan, or at least did not share anything with the Dylan I knew. His voice has, in his undeniable old age, lost its famous spiritual desperation, raspy but powered by a grassroots soul that summed up an age, and has grown to resemble more closely the sound of gravel in a blender. I found myself crying and was not surprised. With Dylan’s voice, the center of his music’s aura, gone, there is almost nothing left of what makes Bob Dylan Bob Dylan.
What of the lyrics? What of Dylan’s poetic flourishes, such seminal gems as “Two riders were approaching, and the wind began to howl”? Well, I suppose if you transcribed the entire album into text and showed it to music veteran, they would certainly be able to identify it as Dylan, but it is a distinctly old Dylan, a Dylan who is telling stories to his grandchildren and recalling past adventures. Such nostalgia is the only explanation for his still rambling about women and long travels across the desert, despite being 71 years old. Count ’em, 71. In the album’s later half, however, there is some genuine poetry, (see the fourteen-minute 45-verse title track, which is an admirable sort of epic hybrid of Shakespeare and The Titanic), but with his voice so dirty it doesn’t have that genuine passion of Dylan’s prime. Perhaps I am unjust to expect such things, but I do not think I am alone in that expectation.
The longer tracks which close the album, especially “Pay in Blood” and “Tin Angel”, show Dylan touching a sort of Homeric storytelling vein reminiscent of his old folk triumphs, but the decay in his voice and the instrumentation — which most often consists of one four-note pattern repeated for literally seven minutes at a time — make this album an orphan, an offshoot from former glory in which Dylan sounds, at his best, like some kind of mystical poet on his death bed, and at his worst like one of those awful throaty car commercial jingles. If you can handle slowly plodding folk that sounds like Hemingway given melody, then perhaps this album is for you, but if you like Bob Dylan as most people conceive of him, this album will come as something bewildering and strange. Score: 7/10.
Jake Bittle / A&E Editor