To some degree, anybody who’s going to buy this knows what to expect from having heard Dylan’s last few albums—Dylan growling gamely over clean, rootsy, impressively-played tracks. So the word on this album, other than “Dylan is old and his band is good,” is repetition. “Scarlet Town” repeats the same verse (24 seconds long) for 7 minutes and 17 seconds; “Early Roman Kings” runs the “Mannish Boy” riff for 5:13; “Tin Angel” repeats one 4-second musical phrase for 9 minutes; “Tempest” doesn’t change musically for 14 minutes, and “Roll on John” has a brief verse and chorus in alternation for 7-and-a-half That’s over 40 minutes total—all in a row, too. So are the lyrics good? A lot of them are interesting—“Tine Angel” especially shows off Dylan’s intentionally stilted phrasing—but some of them are “Shine a light/move it on/You burned so bright/Roll on, John,” referring to John Lennon. The day the greatest rock lyricist pays tribute to the most famous rock casualty with “You burned so bright” is a bewildering day indeed. But Bob Dylan has not wanted to be the greatest rock lyricist for a long time now, occasional slip-ups like Blood on the Tracks notwithstanding; he just wants to enjoy the folk tropes, American mythology, the yadda-yadda-yadda he has always dug. So take Tempest as a groove album, as a cartoon, as background music from a man with a long background, and it might grow on you. Granted, those who have faith in Dylan’s undiminished poetic power will have an entirely different experience with the album. They won’t need my take.
Nathan J. Campbell
Originally Published in the Fall 2012 Issue