“I’m searching for phrases / To sing your praises,” sings Bob Dylan on “Soon After Midnight” the second track on his latest album, Tempest. I can relate. While many of the phrases that come to mind after hearing Tempest do not exactly befit a legend, adding to a 50-year-old conversation about a man who is arguably the greatest songwriter of all time is an unenviable proposition, even in light of a new album.
Produced again by Dylan’s alter ego Jack Frost, Tempest more or less retains the stylistic preoccupations of every Dylan album since 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. This means mushy production, 12-bar blues, and lots of accordion (courtesy, again, of the great David Hidalgo). Also front and center is Dylan’s increasingly ragged voice, a demonic death rattle which has now taken on the quality of oil crackling in a frying pan, presented on Tempest with all the close-mic’d intimacy of an obscene phone call. The cliche that Dylan “can’t sing” has always been as inaccurate as it is familiar — if the quality of Dylan’s voice is dubitable, his pitch, which is perfect, is not. Still, there are songs on Tempest that make you wish he’d just clear his throat already.
The mix also does these songs no favors. Like Tom Waits, Dylan has always had great taste in guitar players, and he stocks Tempest with welcome recurring characters like Hidalgo, Stu Kimball, and Charlie Sexton. But unlike Waits, Dylan favors production that too frequently forsakes imaging for a spontaneous ‘live’ sound, cheating the songs out of any vividness they might have had. The loudest sounds on Tempest are Dylan’s voice and George G. Receli’s drums, while everything else merely provides a palette.
And that’s a shame, because many of these songs are superb. The banjo-and-fiddle-augmented “Scarlet Town” nods to “Red River Shore” in more than just its title, with a similarly beautiful lamentation on lost love and missed opportunities, while jaunty opening track “Duequesne Whistle” nods more to Satchmo than Woody Guthrie. Stylistic variations like these also tether many of these songs to Dylan’s earlier work: “Scarlet Town” boasts a minor-key melancholy that takes us all the way back to “Ballad Of A Thin Man”; “Long and Wasted Years” is pure Basement Tapes ruckus; and a few tunes could have fit comfortably on the underrated Infidels, with “Pay In Blood” echoing the fractious rock of “Neighborhood Bully,” and “Soon After Midnight” updating the tender and irresistible “Sweetheart Like You.” Even stranger, the slow, cascading arrangement of “Long And Wasted Years” is an unexpected attempt at indie-baroque that would give The Decemberists pause.
While the elliptical Dylan, who effortlessly metes out lyrics of apocalyptic exhortations and scathing barbs, has of late given way to addressing old-man concerns like long and narrow roads, train whistles blowing, and adulterous women, his historically keen eye is mostly still sharp. Tempest also finds the septuagenarian Dylan a little frisky. We learn on the caffeinated “Narrow Way” that Zimmy would like to bury his face between the breasts of a “well-stacked woman”; he laments the loss of a “flat-chested junkie whore” on “Scarlet Town,” and admits on “Early Roman Kings” that he’s totally willing to “make love to a bitch or a hag.” Perhaps sad-eyed ladies and Scorpio sphinxes in calico dresses are in shorter supply in this, the Age of Snooki.
The album’s second half isn’t as successful. The bouncy-but-brooding “Tin Angel” is a quixotic account of a vengeful cuckold that ends in a triple murder-suicide more reminiscent of a police blotter entry than a murder ballad. The title track is a shuffling chanty about the Titanic that’s as uninteresting as it is long, and if the idea of Dylan writing a song about the Titanic (it even name-checks, er, Leonardo DiCaprio, and I will hence bear a grudge against Dylan for forcing me to add a spell-check of the name ‘DiCaprio’ to my browser history) seems about 15 years late, take a gander at Tempest’s abominable cover art, which has all the aesthetic charm of the sort of smooth-jazz compilation CD that chokes Wal Mart bargain bins nationwide. “Roll On John” is another in the long line of rock-stars-commemorating-each-other songs, and ends the album on an uncharacteristically plodding note.
I’ll leave the connotations of the title to the more Shakespeare-inclined. But it’s difficult to imagine this album resonating with either the heretofore unconverted or very many persons under the age of 30. First single “Early Roman Kings” certainly isn’t the first song to lift the lick from “Mannish Boy,” but it’s a questionable choice given that most contemporary listeners will more readily associate the riff with George Thorogood than Muddy Waters. Tempest, more than any previous album in his discography, darkly positions Dylan as poet-poltergeist, and if that’s too unsettling a thought to fathom in 2012, wait till you actually hear it.