With the release of his novelty album Christmas in the Heart in 2009, Bob Dylan allowed us to stop believing in him and to start loving him. A collection of traditional Christmas songs performed in a strangely avuncular style, it divided most Dylan fans into two temporally marked camps, in the same tired way that many Dylan albums had done before. The most recognised divide is the folk into electric division caused by Highway 61 Revisited, but there are many others, notably atheist into Christian, and from innovator of electric folk back to exponent of old time folk.
With Christmas in the Heart, and its heartfelt homage to the inane truths of belief systems, it was no longer possible to believe in Dylan as prophet and holy artist. After decades of trying, Dylan has perhaps finally got his wish, articulated in an interview on CBS in 2004. "I never wanted to be a prophet or a saviour. Elvis maybe. I could easily see myself becoming him, but prophet? No."
Some felt Christmas in the Heart's sea change, as they always have, was a betrayal. Others were liberated into an appreciation of Dylan as current musical and cultural genius, and it's those people who recognise Tempest as one of the finest albums of 2012. Is it a great Dylan album? No, because it doesn't have to be. At this stage, we know we'll never get another album like Blood on the Tracks, or Highway 61 Revisited. In his superb memoir, Chronicles Vol 1 (Volume 2 is rumoured to be close to publication), Dylan describes how he had to disappoint producer Daniel Lanois. During the recording of Oh Mercy (1989), Lanois asks for songs like Masters of War, or With God on our Side. Dylan laments not being able to produce them.
"Those kinds of songs were written under different circumstances, and circumstances never repeat themselves … I couldn't get to those kinds of songs for him or anyone else. To do it, you've got to have power and dominion over the spirits. I had done it once, and once was enough. Someone would come along eventually who would have it again."
Tempest is Dylan's 35th studio album. If you put the titles of all those albums together, you probably get enough lyrics for a song, and it'll probably be a song that's a hundred times more lyrically brilliant than 90% of the stuff released this year. And as many reviewers have pointed out, we need to weigh up Tempest in the context of its peers, not in the shadow of its forebears.
Tempest's first track, Duquesne Whistle, has a spooky, jaunty intro, reminiscent of a John Adams harmonium piece gone askew. Co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Dylan's collaborator on the excellent Together Through Life (2009), it announces Tempest is an album that's an amalgam of the blues, folk and country that Dylan has favoured the last couple of decades or so.
There are some truly interesting and beautiful songs, veering from the catchy, Bo Diddley-esque Early Roman Kings to the frankly overblown 13'55 title track, a long, elegiac narrative about the Titanic. But even where Dylan is making you dance, he's summoning the dark. Early Roman Kings includes lyrics like "I'll dress up your wounds/ With a blood-clotted rag/ I ain't afraid to make love/ If you a bitch or a hag." At this point, in the same way that you are compelled to mention "jangling guitar" when reviewing a U2 album, I'm obligated to use the words "gravelly voice". I know it's a cliché, but my God – Dylan's voice has gone way beyond Bowie's description of it as "sand and glue" and out the other side into a universe of heavy air.
Curiously, my copy of Tempest appears to have been designed on WordPerfect by someone's aunt on her lunch break. It looks as if it's a bad bootleg, to the extent that they've even misspelt a song title, Duquesne Wistle (sic). It speaks of a certain disrespect, perhaps. But it does highlight the fact that Dylan is now about the music, rather than the mythopoetic packaging. On Long Time Gone, from The Witmark Demos: 1962 – 1964 bootleg, Dylan prefigures his current perennial musical status, and that transition from someone to believe in, to someone to love. " … I know I ain't no prophet/ An' I ain't no prophet's son/ I'm just a long time a-comin'/ An' I'll be a long time gone."
We're privileged to still have Dylan around, making lovely music. The album's last song, the uneven and at times turgid Roll on John, is a tribute to John Lennon. It serves as a reminder of what the world of music lost with Lennon's murder, and an even more pertinent reminder of how magical it is to still have Dylan making great music 50 years after the release of his first album.
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