2:50 PM CDT, September 19, 2012
Bob Dylan’s voice is like a thousand porcelain vases getting run over by smog-belching tractors. Yet as he continues his weird, wonderful march into through the twilight of his career, it’s impossible to not admire the sheer gustiness with which he operates.
Following a career renaissance that included three of his finest albums (“Time Out of Mind”, “Love and Theft”, “Modern Times”), Dylan followed with the serviceable (“Together Through Life”) the outrageously bizarre (the unmentionable Christmas album, which I refuse to listen to) and now “Tempest” which includes a titular track over thirteen minutes long describing the sinking of the Titanic.
That last one may sound bizarre, but it’s actually a well-worn folk music tradition that’s been previously tackled by the likes of Pete Seeger. Musicians add and subtract verses at will, and Dylan’s version describes a macabre scene on the deck of the infamous ocean liner right before it departs for its cold, watery grave.
Speaking of folk traditions, Dylan recently defended his penchant for borrowing liberally from multiple traditions, including dead Confederate poets. After citing Dylan’s “plagiarism” and fabulism in defense of certain artistic practices for a column I wrote, I think it’s particularly apropos to mention what he told Rolling Stone in regards to his critics: “All those evil motherf***ers can rot in hell.”
Is it any wonder I’m a slobbering Dylan fan?
Though his voice continues its decline, his lyrical and musical prowess does not, and while I won’t even make a feint at deciphering his inscrutable work on “Tempest” I’ll say that the album echoes endlessly with classic, strange, wonderful Dylanisms—bits of prose poetry that could only come from (or be amalgamated by) his mind.
(Including, from “Scarlet Town”, my favorite: “Set ‘em, Joe, play ‘Walkin’ the Floor’/ Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore”)
While “Tempest” remains a less expansive, slighter album than those three brilliant ones that defined late-period Dylan, it still has some real gems, including the first single “Duquesne Whistle” (go to the internets to see the inexplicably violent music video) and my personal favorite, the winsome, darkly joyful “Long and Wasted Years” (although, it sucks that he has five songs on this album that last over seven minutes and this one comes in at a spare 3:46).
Part of the fun of being in the cult of Dylan is that there is no explanation, there is no endgame, there are no answers. The man moves fluidly between whatever lyrical or musical traditions he cares for, whatever biography pleases him, whatever political or philosophical ideas are handy, and it all might be one big gag anyway. Anyone who’s read his totally awesome, unbelievably perplexing autobiography “Chronicles” knows that it’s Dylan’s world, and the rest of us are just hopelessly trying to decipher it.
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