Thursday, September 20, 2012

Weighing In On Dylan's Tempest.

I dreamed I asked Bob what makes a good song. He said, “Whatever you can get away with.”

On 9/11 Bob Dylan released his 35th album to enormous fanfare. By means of social media, a host of pre-release buzz, and a much talked about video the album gained an immediate audience, high rankings on the charts and high praise from the critics. But was the high praise simply due to the fact that Dylan’s still making music, or because the songs on this new collection were themselves worthy of the praise? Here’s my take.

First off, as I go back through the piles of Dylan albums and CDs in my collection, one thing is certain. This guy knows how to open. The common denominator of nearly every album is that the first cut gets you in. That is to say, unless there’s a song that makes you wish to make a second listen, you’ll not be back.

“Beyond Here Lies Nothing” opens Together Through Life. Awesome, bleak, wonderful. “Thunder On The Mountain” thrusts you into Modern Times with serious exuberance. Love and Theft is introduced with Tweedledee and Tweedledum. And the Grammy award winning Time Out of Mind opens with the painful, exquisitely anguished “Love Sick.”

Then again, go way back and you see it’s always been that way. Changing of the Guard, Tangled Up in Blue, Hurricane, Blowin’ in the Wind, The Times Are A-Changing, Like a Rolling Stone, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Gotta Serve Somebody, Shot of Love… all serve as vibrant opening numbers on Dylan albums, each of them tell-tale signs introducing the material reflected there, invitations to go further in, farther along.

“Duquesne Whistle” performs the honors on Tempest. The pre-release video set the stage for sure, but what about the rest of the tunes? Will they live up to the opening number?

For me, an album can be evaluated by many measures, and some will be perceived as having greater importance than others. On a most plebian level I think it also has something to do with whether it yanks you back for a seconds and thirds and keeps being satisfying. In point of fact, the real flavor is not going to come through till you get to that fourth listen, and after a week I’m onto my sixth with Tempest. Conclusion: it’s worthy of the accolades it’s received.

My only complaint with regard to the release of Dylan's Tempest is not with the album, but with the critics who say it is Dylan's best album since his last 9/11 release, Love and Theft. I mean, both Modern Times and it's sequel Together Through Life both strike me as worthy predecessors to this accordion-accompanied collection. And I'm not talking falsely here because of the late hour.

A few brief remarks on some of the songs.

Duquesne Whistle 
The intro is light-hearted, upbeat. Then the band chimes in and our feet go shufflin’. The video seems to take you along the same light-hearted track at first, but it’s deceptive because in the vid the storyline takes a very dark twist. There’s even a little torture with creepy echoes of the warehouse scene in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

So what’s going on here? Well, The opener is like a preface that hints at the rest of the story, and though the music you hear is fanciful, the themes on this album will include a bit of larceny and horror, so you’d best get a hint of it up front. In literature it’s called foreshadowing.

Soon After Midnight 
I have a friend who says that every Dylan album has a couple throwaway songs. I dunno if I agree with that, but if I were to throw a song away, this would be the one for me, at this point in time. But then, in six more listens it might become a favorite. For now, I just feel like pressing the fast forward on this slow, methodical reminiscence.

Narrow Way 
“It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way…” This one has a pulse, a driving rhythm that carries throughout with messages obscure and explicit simultaneously. It's a fast-paced seven minute song that is easy to ride along with.

Long and Wasted Years 
Here’s a song that just tears away at you. The tune is a descending series of notes that repeats over and over like a river of tears washing over your soul, an eternal waterfall….

Early on he sings, “It’s been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle…” but it’s soon a lament with lines like these:

"I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes 
There's secrets in em' I can't disguise 
Come back baby 
If I hurt your feelings I apologize"

In the end, “We cried on a cold and frosty morn, we cried because our souls were torn; so much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years.”

Pay In Blood 
“A man can’t live by bread alone, I pay with blood but not my own.”

It’s interesting how much of Dylan’s lexicon draws from Biblically choreographed iconography. Is he acknowledging Scripture as inspirational source material, or simply tipping his hat to one of the roots of Western civilization with the same weight as European literature and Greek philosophy?

Scarlet Town
It’s a red light district scene. Or is it a portrayal of modern times? You have seven minutes to figure it out.

Early Roman Kings 
The title alone is amusing and the lyrics, while serous, are equally fun to tangle with. Where’s this song going to take us? The accordion here is a knock-off of a riff on "It's All Good" on Together Through Life. Love it. And the standard blues rhythm has you bobbin’ along like a red, red robin. “All the women goin’ crazy for the early Roman kings.” The song has a great groove.

Tin Angel 
Here’s a nine minute song, yet still not the longest on the album. Three other songs already stretch beyond seven minutes, and the longest lopes along for over thirteen. It’s a long tragic story, like so many before and so many to come.

Summing Up
The music is catchy and after a short while you'll be humming some of these tunes in your head while driving to work or waiting for a friend. And the lyrics are such that you'll have ample opportunity to wrestle with meanings, explore relationships to previous songs and capture new insights into the labyrinthian mind of this elder statesman of our generation.

Oh yes, and there are still two more songs to talk about, but they deserve a longer treatment so I will save that commentary for later.  Listen to the music and have a great day.

EdNote: Yes, I am aware that the quote that I dreamed Bob said (intro above) deserves attribution. Andy purportedly said it when asked "What is art?"

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