Seemingly by sheer force of will, Bob Dylan keeps putting out records. It’s staggering, really – the man is 71 years old. Starting with 1997′s resurgent Time Out of Mind, he has released six studio albums in the last 15 years, during the part of his career when most legendary musicians would be releasing various “Greatest Hits” iterations, if anything.
Dylan’s latest salvo is Tempest, his 35th studio album (released September 10th). Musically, the album is similar in style to his recent work. It’s a collection of blues, folk and rockabilly tunes that are nicely crafted by his backing band, but tend to lack strong hooks. The band’s main purpose, it seems, is to serve as a template for Dylan’s vocals. With a couple of exceptions, most notably the lively “Pay in Blood” and “Narrow Way”, the band rarely departs from slow to mid-tempo numbers that at times tend to blend in to each other.
Dylan’s voice has always been an acquired taste. Even in his younger days, his vocal style would often lean more toward telling stories than singing songs. In the latter half of his career, this spoken-word style has become his signature, and with age has come ever-increasing rasp. On Tempest, Dylan’s croak is on full display. The uninitiated may find his un-melodious style to be a turn-off, but there’s no denying that he has character to burn, a voice that at times exudes a kind of gruff charm. “Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say,” Dylan says in the fourth track “Long and Wasted Years,” as if through a wry smile. “Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.”
But elsewhere, as on “Pay in Blood,” his voice wears thin in an overly grating way that doesn’t fit the up-tempo groove of the song. Fist-pumping lines like “I’ve sworn to uphold the laws of God / You can put me out in front of a firing squad” sound inappropriately weak, as if Dylan’s aging vocal chords weren’t quite up to the task on that particular day in the recording studio.
Nonetheless, the way his voice sounds on Tempest doesn’t seem to overly concern Dylan. As it has throughout his virtuosic career, the focus remains on the songwriting. Dylan pioneered the use of rock and roll as a showcase for poetic phrasing and sharp storytelling, and this album continues this tradition. In “Soon After Midnight,” Dylan sings “A gal named Honey took my money / She was passing… by.” The feeling of wistful longing is tangible in the way he languidly stretches out the line. Elsewhere on “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan confides “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes / There are secrets in them I can’t disguise.” Religious imagery is also found throughout Tempest. On the opening track “Duquesne Whistle,” he sings “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling / Must be the Mother of our Lord.” What’s interesting about lines like these is that it’s hard to tell if they are autobiographical or if Dylan is singing “in character.” The mystery is part of their charm.
Tempest also includes two signature Dylan ballads. The eighth track “Tin Angel” is a dark tale of a love triangle that ends in bloody violence, complete with a recurring, eerily bent bass note in each verse. The album’s title track follows, a 13-minute Irish waltz-style epic about the Titanic’s last hours. While most of the song is focused on human tragedy and desperation, small rays of redemption poke through in lines like “Jim Baca [exact name uncertain] smiled / He never learned to swim / Saw the little crippled child and he gave his seat to him / He saw the star light shining, streaming from the east / Death was on the rampage, but his heart was now in peace.” Towards the end of the song, after a description of the 1,600 souls that lost their lives, there’s this: “They waited at the landing, and they tried to understand / But there is no understanding for the judgment of God’s hand.”
In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Dylan described Tempest as “not the album I wanted to make. I had another one in mind. I wanted to make something more religious.” The album indeed comes across as trying to go in different directions at once, an eclectic mix of introspection, bombast, religious striving, heartbreak, storytelling and tribute (with the final track “Roll On John” in honor of John Lennon). All things considered, Tempest isn’t anything more or anything less than what it is – another Bob Dylan album with no attempt at re-invention. But in today’s popular culture wasteland, it’s a welcome respite.