Not even counting the new album, the last year has been a pretty retrospective one for Bob Dylan. First came The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, a full-length project Dylan curated as a tribute to the country legend in whose work he once said he'd found “the archetype rules of poetic songwriting." Then it was this past March 19, which marked the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s self-titled debut and produced several rearview-gazing thinkpieces (shameless self-promotion alert). Finally, it was Chimes of Freedom, a four-disc set released by Amnesty Internatonal featuring artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Adele to the Gaslight Anthem covering major songs from virtually every period of Dylan’s career. Combined, these three releases have provided a hefty look at Dylan's earliest roots, humble beginnings, and overall legacy.
But Tempest, Dylan’s 35th solo studio album and first since 2009’s Together Through Life (or, if you’re counting gimmicky holiday albums, since the same year’s Christmas in the Heart), is the apex of Dylan's last 12 months, a record that excavates centuries of history and, at times, sounds pretty historical itself. At 68 minutes, it’s Dylan’s longest record since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, but you can count on there being a grand total of zero filler here. And overall, we’re talking Dylan’s third-or fourth-best record since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. Which, okay, makes it one of his ten or 12 best ever.
Writer John Jeremiah Sullivan recently described how Dylan’s brilliance is partly due to his “never run[ning] out of chambers to explore” in contemporary music. That’s fairly accurate, but “corners” might be a more appropriate word there. It’s been decades since Dylan’s truly broken ground, so what he’s been doing of late has usually had to do with him finding smaller sonic areas he might have skimmed through or skipped entirely in the past. And the corner he’s excavating with Tempest is a particularly dark one, maybe the darkest of his career.
What’s bound the past few Dylan albums together have been themes of death, loneliness, and struggle. But on Tempest, the body-count and desperation are at all-time highs; the title track is about the Titanic, “Tin Angel” accounts a three-way murder-suicide, and “Roll On, John” looks at the assassination of Dylan’s former friend John Lennon, meanwhile quoting the Beatles' “A Day in the Life” and “Come Together.” Here is an old man looking at his life and being almost devastatingly discontented with what he’s seen. In other words, Greg Kot’s extended Ed Tom Bell analog isn't that far off.
The mere subject matter and tone of the album, however, aren’t what make it so interesting. Instead, it's Dylan's ins and outs on the lyrical tip. Take the title track, which lasts 14 minutes and doesn’t have a single repeated lyric. For almost any other songwriter, that combination couldn’t possibly bode well. But Dylan has long since mastered the long song (see “Desolation Row,” obviously), and his otherworldly sense of narrative pacing hasn’t lost a bit of its power. Much of “Tempest” centers on the little things behind the Titanic’s 1912 debut as well as the doomed trip’s legacy in the media – with a mention of “Leo’s sketchbook” included. But by the end, the song effectively becomes about disaster as equalizer, with its lines about how “1600 had gone to rest / The good, the bad / The rich, the poor.” Tempest is full of stuff like this; this paragraph could have been about virtually any other song here.
Musically, the album is rooted in all kinds of traditional American forms, from Muddy Waters-style electric blues to the more primitive staples of early rock and roll. Dylan is long past doing anything flashy instrumentally, but that’s not to say he lets his band get stagnant. Quite the opposite. There’s “Soon After Midnight,” whose easy sway mirrors that of 2006's “Spirit on the Water” sans the piano. There’s “Narrow Way,” a three-note-riff-based composition that rolls and tumbles for seven and a half minutes without ever getting boring; it could go on for twice as long as it does. There’s “Scarlet Town,” which, though one of the more modest and subtle songs here, brings to mind the more haunting images of Riddle County in Todd Haynes’s 2007 Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. And, of course, there’s “Tempest,” which brings in Desire-evoking violin and chugs along as steadily as its seafaring subject was supposed to. The band Dylan’s using now doesn’t quite summon the power of, say, the Band, but there are times when the music here gets pretty hypnotic and arresting indeed.
And there's that voice. Dylan’s growl is growing ever more guttural as the years pass, but while he never holds a single note longer than a few fractions of a second, it's still easy to tell that he has some serious cognizance for how marginal differences in inflection can supplement the overall vibe of a song. This is why the harshest, phlegmiest tones are found on the brooding “Pay in Blood,” while sweeter cadences are saved for the more romantic “Soon After Midnight.” Plus, there’s that legendary knack for phrasing to be reckoned with; seemingly only Dylan could make lines like “A gal named Honey / Took my money” not sound just beyond corny.
We’re now at a place where we can pretty well look at Dylan’s career as, essentially, an entire body of work – and, even when considering all of the obvious highlights of his past half-century, Tempest still stands out. If this is Dylan's final album, which, given his age, is definitely (and definitely unfortunately) a possibility, it should go down as nearly the finest swan song imaginable. Let’s hope there’s more where this came from, though.