Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bob Dylan: Tempest (2012)



A corpse dragged through the mud, a ship and a planet hurtling toward bleak demise, a singer shot in the back, and a love more destructive than warm -- Bob Dylan's never been, it seems, in a darker state of mind than on his most striking left turn since Time Out of Mind returned him to the highest tier of American songwriting. Conversely, however, if he's on a rant it's one that finds renewed energy in the casual background C&W and fragmented folk of Modern Times and Together Through Life, because this is far more devotedly serious than either but also more defiant and devilish in its macabre humor. You detect unmistakable evidence in the 71 year-old's voice on even a gentle, dramatic sprawl like "Scarlet Town" that he is having, well, fun. A kind of fun, anyway, that which springs from a snapping into focus of creative energy; the last Dylan record that felt this vital was Love and Theft, and before that I couldn't even tell you.

Love and Theft saw release on September 11, 2001 and this album was issued eleven years later to the day; it could be an accident, but probably not. For all the well-oiled Dylan band's archaic textures, picking up impressively stripped snatches of traditional folk forms and cobbling them around their leader's vague musical and lyrical ideas, this is music that somehow captures, with surprising potency, the muted inner and outward chaos of its time. And does so as proficiently as any younger mainstream rocker or indie popper has this year or last. Its mythical romances and slightly abstract murder ballads don't just lie there in insular pleasure and wander off into the night; like some radio ghost he can prattle onward here for ten or fifteen minutes and hold you under a spell, beholden by a distance of wisdom and assurance but also incredulity. The album and the songs don't even seem to begin or end; they just come into existence and vanish.

To say this is a more focused variant on the messy Together Through Life is reductive but not actually inaccurate; that clean "classic rock" sound gets newly filtered here through better and more comfortably varied tunes. And Dylan's learning to own the fraying of his voice, at home in the studio if not on stage, and he manages to even put a Louis Armstrong spin of sorts on the weird ragtime country opener "Duquesne Whistle," and no amount of aged weariness and vocal cracking can bring down the persuasive (undoubtedly interpolated) melody of the title cut. That, by the way, is one of the big fifteen-minute showpieces here, something about the Titanic and what it revealed about how different people react to a disaster -- but try as I might, I can't seem to fixate on the lyric well enough to concentrate on its implications because the music itself, and the singing, are so hypnotic, casting a dusty, hazy magic with their moving roominess and sufficiently illustrative of their setting to render the words as a mere elevation.

Dylan enters Leonard Cohen territory with the love triangle sea chanty "Tin Angel," a bass-heavy menace with a hint of East Asian traditional music, or at least a westernized interpretation of same -- Dylan will never be Cohen or vice versa, and "Sing Another Song Boys" this isn't, with Dylan struggling to find a heartthrob bone in his body, but there is a yearning to this slow burn that's gradually acquired and cumulatively striking. The same goes for "Long and Wasted Years," which is like something from Empire Burlesque with vastly less intrusive production, and finds Dylan in his most sincere mode, a treat when it's surrounded by the robust, throaty sharpness of "Narrow Way" and the Van Morrison-like raveup "Pay in Blood," one of Dylan's most bruising songs in years. The manner in which these new songs contrast and play against one another is one of the two major elements to its success, the other being the sense of total immersion in its mystery, its haunted rambling.

A reliable band like Dylan's can generate beauty in the mundane, even in workhorse mode -- Dylan goes intimate and old-world on the soft doo wop of "Soon After Midnight" and Sexton, Hidalgo, Garnier et al. fall behind him as smoothly as can be imagined. They can make something vital out of a swaggering Muddy Waters lift, or make the distorted, deliberately backward Lennon tribute that closes the record feel as stuck in time as it should. All the while, Dylan never wavers from his own sense of purpose, renewed once again. Grab hold of the storytelling and the introspection if you want, but when he pitches in with a snarling "Even death has washed its hands of you," well, that's my Dylan.

Together Through Life (2009)

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