Bob Dylan’s voice is not peaches and cream. It’s always been a coarse sound, supported by the songwriter’s narratives and tight production.
Since his self-titled debut 34 albums ago in 1962, Dylan was pantomiming a full-on Woody Guthrie impression that he never looked back from afterward, except when he covered standards in the early 1990s.
Experimentation keeps the detractors at bay, and is definitely the number one reason why the singer has retained and built upon his fan base in his 50 years of service.
That continued experimentation shows up on “Tempest,” his newest release of newly recorded material in three and a half years, if one doesn’t count his funky tongue-and-cheek album of Christmas standards.
In the album’s opening track, “Duquesne Whistle,” Dylan fully embraces that lonesome, Hank-Williams-and-the-Drifting-Cowboys image that the artist has been dancing around since his “Modern Times” album six years ago. This spirit informs the genre and tone of the album.
The 71-year-old Dylan wisely packages his grizzled voice into that of a world-weary Western wanderer, telling tales of scoundrels and full of small-town gloom and doom. That voice combined with this particular production is a perfect marriage.
Many of “Tempest’s” stories take on the feel of decay, and only a legendary artist of his age could juggle such shady content and still come off as nothing but poetic.
On the last track, “Roll on John,” the singer acknowledges one of his contemporaries, John Lennon, a rarity for him.
If “Modern Times” was the more commercial palate — full of inviting tracks — then “Tempest” is its ill-tempered sibling. This still doesn’t stop the album from having a top of the line production — Dylan has gotten gradually better about producing his work.
Then there are “Tempest’s” two more overly larger-than-life tracks, the nine-minute “Tin Angel,” and the equally ambitious, more than 14-minute follow-up from which the album takes it names.
Both songs are in the old tradition of past ambitious Dylan narratives — like “Desolation Row” and “Brownsville Girl” — where the artist tosses aside basic song structure and becomes a narrator of tales.
Of the two, “Tempest,” a track about the sinking of the Titanic, feels like the more sweeping epic, full of vivid imagery and side characters, worthy of comparison to “Row.”
The artist crafts a song, where he sounds like the narrator of an ancient traditional arrangement passed down to a cowboy, with such illustrative passages that ache with humility and nobility for the dead, such as “The ship was goin’ under / The universe had opened wide” or “No change or sudden wonder could undo what had been done,” or even, “They drowned up on the staircase of brass and polished gold.”
On “Tempest,” Dylan sings with the usual amount of what David Bowie once described as a voice “like sand and glue.” It can be rough, but when the music is good, that criticism fades, and he can continue to write into the distant horizon.
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