Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pop Goes The Babble’s Favorite Album of 2012: Bob Dylan’s Tempest

Welcome to Pop Goes The Babble!

This is a new sister site to Film Babble Blog, that will be mostly focused on pop culture other than movies - television shows, music, books, whatever. 

This blog will be more indulgent than Film Babble as I’ll be posting on stuff I’m into at the moment - like classic and indie rock ‘n roll, and TV series I’m currently making my way through (I’m exercise-biking through the X-Files right now, but you’ll hear more about that later).

For this first post, which I believe will set the tone for the babblin' to come, here’s an essay about my favorite album of the last year:

Bob Dylan’s Tempest: Songs about love, death, the Titanic, and John Lennon

Bob Dylan has one of the most divisive voices in all of pop culture. It’s a raspy croak of a voice, that’s gotten raspier and croakier throughout the years - to the point, at times, of extreme indecipherability, especially in the realm of stage performance. 

When Dylan last played the Triangle here in N.C., at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park three years ago, a lot of people left during his set, simply because they could not understand what the Hell he was singing. Even much loved Dylan (and rock) standards such as “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower” were unrecognizable to a large part of the audience.

However, there are folks, like me, who speak fluent Dylanese, that actually enjoy the man’s particular brand of ever-changing phrasing, no matter how hoarse.

I’m part of what author Jonathan Lethem dubbed “the Biograph generation,” that is, the wave of fans that, because of their age, came to Dylan twenty years after his prime ‘60s period, around the time his career-spanning box set Biograph was released in 1985. Bob’s voice was considerably shot even by then, but the power of his back catalog, and the fact he still had stellar work like Infidels (1983) and Oh Mercy (1989) in him, that blunt instrument sounded pretty damn good to me.

Sure, Dylan’s voice has deteriorated much more since, but on a strong run of studio albums starting with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, he’s delivered critically acclaimed, award-winning, and, most surprisingly, chart topping music - very vital stuff that’s proved that that oh-so difficult voice is largely beside the point. 

The 71-year old Dylan’s newest release, his 35th studio album Tempest, should further cement that position. It’s a stirring collection of songs about love, death, the Titanic, and John Lennon, that’s maybe the man’s best since 2001’s Love and Theft.

Tempest, which was recorded with Dylan’s touring band Tony Garnier, George G. Receli, Donnie Herron, Charlie Sexton, and Stu Kimball, shares some of Love and Theft’s atmosphere and love of old timey blues and rockabilly (as well as a 9/11 release date), but much of it seems set in much more savage terrain.

Take for instance, “Pay in Blood,” a stand-out rocker, with stinging Stones-like chords, that muddies up the melody from Love and Theft’s “Mississippi” to a great gravelly effect.

When Dylan growls such lines as “You’ve got the same eyes that your Mama does, if only you’d could prove who your father was,” “this is how I spend my days, I came to bury, not to praise,” and the chorus’ “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own” we know we’re in the midst of a severely different psyche than the one who sang “I've got nothing but affection for all those who've sailed with me” a decade ago.

In appraising the other songs, the moon-lit ballad “Soon After Midnight,” sounds like a sequel to Time Out of Mind’s “Standing in the Doorway,” or a spiritual descendant of Oh Mercy’s “Where Teardrops Fall,” in the tradition of Dylan’s late-night laments.

“Scarlet Town” channels “Ain’t Talkin’” from Dylan’s Modern Times, likewise the opener “Duquesne Whistle” has a “Thunder On The Mountain”-thing going on, but it doesn’t come across like Bob repeating himself. More like, he’s refining a style he’s been pursuing since his first album fifty years ago. 

The dark brooding nine minute “Tin Angel” is probably the darkest and bloodiest song here, as it tells a love triangle suicide story, which gets more menacing with each verse.

Of course, with Bob, you’ve got to expect a few blues shuffles and they’re there in “Narrow Way,” and the “Mannish Boy”-ish “Early Roman Kings” (featuring David Hidalgo on accordion). Some may complain about how obvious and done-to-death these swampy rhythms are, but if you’re not a fan of Bob churning out cutting couplets over deep blues progressions, then you’re just not into Bob. 

In his fourth self-produced disc in a row, Dylan shifts through a variety of genres including ragtime, vaudeville, Chess Records R & B, swing, cocktail-lounge crooning, and, his old standby folk, which, intertwined with an Irish waltz ambience, rules on the epic Titanic-themed title song.

“Tempest,” an almost 14-minute track about the 1912 sinking of the Titanic, makes me envision Bob sitting on his couch with his guitar watching “Titanic” on TBS, and riffing on what’s happening onscreen. How else do you explain the name dropping of “Leo” (DiCaprio), and the line about a woman telling “a sad, sad story of the great ship that went down”?

As pivotal and engaging as the track “Tempest” is, and it does immediately join the pantheon of essential long-form Dylan songs like “Desolation Row,” "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Joey,” “Brownsville Girl,” and “Highlands” (still the longest Dylan song at 16:31), Dylan’s John Lennon tribute “Roll on John,” the album’s fitting closer, is definitely more affecting.

In what could be considered another late-night lament, Bob quotes from Beatles’ songs, and utters the epitaph: “From the Liverpool docks to the Hamburg Red-light streets, down in the quarry with the Quarrymen, playing to the big crowds, playing to the cheap seats.” A few years back, Dylan visited Lennon’s childhood home in Liverpool, and that can be felt in the affectionate reverence of “Roll on John.” 

Dylan’s previous album, 2009’s Together Through Life, had its off-the-cuff, live-in-the-studio charms, but Tempest is a vast improvement in arrangement, production, and songwriting, with lyrics that are as sharp as the singing is raggedy. It makes a compelling case that Bob’s voice, even at this late date, still has a mighty place in our present culture.

More later...

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