When a musical legend like Bob Dylan releases a new record, the tendency of much of the music press is to inflate the review in an act of reverence. This doesn't do the reader or the musician justice. "Tempest" does not quite stand with Dylan's classics. There isn't a track as iconic as "Like A Rolling Stone" or "Blowin' In The Wind." His voice, never great in the first place, has long been shot, losing the majority of the tonality it once had.
On the album's opener, "Duquesne Whistle," Dylan sounds like a seasoned railroad bluesman, his lungs lined with soot. The track is over five minutes and could use a bit of trim but nevertheless, it's a nice old-school blues workout.
Dylan has seemingly hit a standstill since his 1997 redefining classic, "Time Out Of Mind." More and more of his tracks work off of a well-weathered blues mold. This doesn't make his songs any less powerful. He's still a powerful storyteller, but sticking to the standard blues form, he's lost a sense of unique melody, which in his case (and given his voice) makes these tracks slightly less memorable.
Please don't misinterpret what I'm saying. "Tempest" plays rather well and it is his best set since "Time Out Of Mind," but it lacks that collection's sense of variety and surprise.
By now, these are old tricks done by an expert. I suppose by now, when one buys a Dylan record, one knows what one is getting. (It is his 35th album, after all.) But it still would be nice to get some more unexpected quirks. At least "Tempest" is more ear-catching than his last record, "Together Through Life," and lacks the unintentionally hilariously awkward Alicia Keys shout-out on the "Modern Times" opener, "Thunder On The Mountain."
The few moments when Dylan does attempt a unique melody here, he finds reward. "Soon After Midnight" is definitely the album's standout track. In fact, it's the only track here that could possibly even recall Dylan's peak late-sixties/early seventies work. And yet, it's a rather standard country stroll.
The latter-day Dylan tends to meander. Years ago when Dylan got epic, he'd deliver a classic like "Hurricane," a resonant tune that would psych you up and drive you in. On "Tempest," when Dylan gets epic, he plods along in a very long-winded way. He puts two examples back-to-back. "Tin Angel" is a deathly-slow two-chord dirge that clocks in at over nine minutes, while the album's title track is a near fourteen-minute Homer-esque retelling of the sinking of the Titanic. The latter at least has a repetitive waltz-like swing reminiscent of passed-down drinking songs, but both of these tracks would make for a more interesting read than they do a listen. While Dylan's sense of melody has dulled (perhaps due to his growing vocal limitations) his knack for language has gotten stronger. He's always been a strong storyteller and now this trait has become his defining asset.
The album ends with a touching John Lennon tribute called "Roll On John." Not only does he quote the Beatles multiple times ("Come together over me" and "I read the news today, oh boy") but he also nicks pieces from William Blake and the standard goodnight prayer. I guess anyone who knows anything about the history of blues or jazz knows that the true artists know to "borrow" from the best, and Dylan is no different.
If you are a Dylan fan, "Tempest" will please you a great deal. It may hit some rough waters from time to time (please pardon the pun) but there's little doubt that this is the work of a great master. Perhaps Dylan's skill is that he makes it look easy. Maybe he's become a master of subtlety. Perhaps that is why I feel as if I've heard this from him before. Hopefully this won't be his last album and I'll hear it from him again. I just hope next time around, he journeys a tad bit outside his Americana country-blues wheelhouse and takes some more daring chances. While I do enjoy and respect this record, I still wish it stood out from the pack. Nonetheless, it is a reliable collection of cerebral Gothic blues.