Bob Dylan is 71 years old. Think about that fact while considering some others, like the 3 to 5 years he usually takes between his releases, and that his new record shares its name with Shakespeare’s final play. All this makes you ask: Is Tempest Bob Dylan’s final record? And if it is, is it a worthy bookend to the man’s legacy?
That kind of symmetry is rare. The few musicians whose final albums really do feel like a fitting farewell -- Joey Ramone’s Don’t Worry About Me, Joe Strummer’s Streetcore, Johnny Cash’s American IV (not counting the succession of posthumous releases) – connect back to their greatest work, are great in and of themselves, and also provide an emotional climax that helps fans mourn. They sound contemporary while also looking back on a musical life well-lived.
First, there’s an obsession with death that runs through Tempest -- whether it be the watery grave met by Leo and his fellow passengers on the Titanic, the murders on the 9-minute “Tin Angel,” or the 32-year-in-the-making mourning for Dylan’s friend John Lennon on “Roll on John” -- but it’s not an obsession with mortality. Ramone and Cash were both terminally ill when recording what they knew would be their final albums, but Dylan is much more interested in other people dying on Tempest. The mortality Dylan is obsessed with on Tempest is the kind met at the end of a gun, or in icy waters. It’s not exactly introspective.
"Musically, 'Tempest' packs old folk melodies, old blues riffs, old-timey organ sounds, and old rock and roll ideas – not a bad thing, except it recycles these ideas from every Dylan album from the past 10 years, and just the past 10 years."
The album flirts with the sort of reflections that accompany a farewell, but Dylan seems utterly uninterested in looking inward here. Lyrically, he looks back to work from the past, but it’s never his own. He’s much more interested in Lennon’s legacy, or the way that James Cameron’s interpretation of the Titanic disaster has fairly jumped from pop culture to historical myth. The closest Dylan comes to providing a bookend here is that he’s written a second rambling, narrative epic named after a storm, but the 14-minute “Tempest” is no “Hurricane.”
But Bob Dylan was never interested in anyone else’s conception of who he is. If he was willing to alienate any number of his fans by going electric early in his career, or to tour for decades while performing all of his most famous songs in radically different interpretations every night, then it’s unlikely he’d sit down at 71 and write “The Times They Are Still A-Changing” or “Bob Dylan’s Ten-Zillionth Dream.” That’s never been who he is, and easy call-backs to the songs he wrote in his youth would sound hollow from Dylan. Rather than craving a neat bookend to his best work, it’s clear from the reviews of the album that what we’re after is something that can stand alongside it as equally worthy of our attention.
So where does Tempest fit among Dylan’s greatest works? The reviews so far are desperate to declare it absolutely essential. Rolling Stone labeled it his “dark new masterpiece” over a month ago, and dropped yet another five-star review on the guy. (Fun-fact: Rolling Stone hasn’t given a Bob Dylan album that didn’t include “Here Comes Santa Claus” on the tracklisting fewer than four stars since 1990.) Perfect scores also came from Uncut, Entertainment Weekly, Newsday, and Britain’s The Sun. But let’s be real: They’re grading on a curve. If Tempest is a Dylan masterpiece, that means it occupies the same space as Blood On The Tracks, Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Tempest has its moments, but it’s not an essential album that everyone needs to spend some serious time listening to in order to develop a proper context for listening to rock music. So maybe it doesn’t touch his best albums, but it doesn’t even really place next to less iconic work like New Morning or Time Out of Mind either. For every line that sticks in your memory like “I’ve paid in blood/ But not my own,” two others make you groan (“cheerful” and “fearful”? “Angel from the skies” and “weary soul to rise”?). Dylan’s damaged snarl still thrills, when he’s hurling accusations on “Pay In Blood” or bending it in tenderer direction, as on “Soon After Midnight.” But musically, Tempest packs old folk melodies, old blues riffs, old-timey organ sounds, and old rock and roll ideas – not a bad thing, except it recycles these ideas from every Dylan album from the past 10 years, and just the past 10 years. Dylan’s work has always been rooted in advancing folk traditions, but doing that in the same exact way for over a decade isn’t advancing anything -- it sounds more like settling. Dylan is someone whose career was predicated on reinvention, from the earnest folkie of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to the rock star behind Highway 61 Revisited to the Johnny Cash-dueting Bob of Nashville Skyline, and on and on. He’s rarely made four albums in a row that sounded the same at any point in his career. In many ways, Tempest is the sound of a Bob Dylan who’s settled into something.
Tempest, from its title to the reality of time, more or less dares us to view it as a farewell, but it doesn’t sounds like a summation of Dylan’s work. It’s a whisper, not a bang. In some ways, Tempest is as confounding as anything Dylan has ever done. And that decision -- to just keep on being a Bob Dylan album, expectations be damned -- is probably the most Dylan move of all.
Tempest is out now via Columbia. Watch the video for "Duquesne Whistle" below: