Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bob Dylan: Tempest

"The more I die, the more I live"
There comes a point in an artist's career when he (or she) owns the form. Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham or Laurence Olivier not only got better with age - richer and more interesting - they also made their craft look as easy as lathering soap. It's as though all the practice through the years collapses the artist and the art together into one indistinguishable entity, or what Yeats referred to as the blurring between the dancer and the dance:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? ~ "Among School Children"
Enter Bob Dylan circa 2012. On his latest album, Tempest, he makes it all seem easy. There's no reaching to be had - everything is in his grasp. From the Bob Wills' western-bop of "Duquesne Whistle," to the elegiac closer for John Lennon, "Roll On John," Dylan's unmistakable imprimatur is on every note.

All that being said, how does a critic approach the music of a 71-year-old icon? Is it enough that it's Dylan, an artist who's beyond reproach because he's mining a style all his own? Has he made another greatest work of one of his careers, as Rolling Stone or David Fricke in Mojo suggest? Not quite. It's still possible and necessary to gauge the quality of the music through all the noise. But the only way to measure work of this stature is to place it alongside previous albums, specifically those done in this latter era of his career beginning with Time Out of Mind (1997), followed by Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009). The one common thread linking them all is the world-weary character Dylan has cultivated, this cowboy-noir dude, a mixture of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine and Gary Cooper's Will Kane. 

1.  Time Out of Mind (10/10) set the benchmark. Daniel Lanois had something to do with the sonics, especially on the best song of Dylan's later career, "Not Dark Yet", but the walking blues of "Love Sick" or "Highlands" and the celebratory "Trying to Get to Heaven" make this a remarkable album.

2. Love and Theft (9/10) thrust Dylan the Crosbyesque crooner to the fore and revealed a great producer - Jack Frost (aka Dylan). He turned "Mississippi" into a rollicking pop song and captured the zeitgeist in September of 2001 with the voodoo blues of "Highwater (For Charlie Patton)".

3.  Modern Times (7/10) is a raw album, more focused on the band, which is coiled as tight as a snake ready to strike. Dylan sings like a man reborn on "Workingman's Blues #2" and "Ain't Talkin'", with the lyrics of the latter sounding as though they've been ripped from some lost passage in the Old Testament.

4. Together Through Life (6/10) maintains the holding pattern of a touring band rehearsing new material during sound checks on the fly. "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" along with the Tex-Mex flavour of "If You Ever Go To Houston" are highlights and a gleeful cynicism emerges on "It's All Good." The album cover is a standout on its own.

5. Tempest (8/10) is Dylan's best since Love and Theft. "Tin Angel" may recall earlier sonic textures ("Ain't Talkin'"), but as Dylan says in a recent Rolling Stone interview, "It's called tradition, and that's what I deal in. Traditional, with a capital T." It's true - Tempest is dripping with the scavenger mud of old, weird America. The song, "Tempest", is a postmodern update of the sinking of the Titanic complete with references to Leo DiCaprio - not his "Jack Dawson" character - and a melody cribbed from the Carter Family song, “The Titanic.” Forty-five verses later, Dylan almost seems to gloat over the verdict:
When the Reaper's task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgment of God's hand
It would be cold comfort to end any album on, but thankfully the tenderness of "Roll On John" peers out from the wreckage:
Shine your light, move it on,
You burn so bright, roll on John
Here's the video for "Duquesne Whistle":

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