Bob Dylan is, without question, one of America’s greatest songwriters, if not the greatest. From “Like A Rolling Stone” to “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan has, at nearly every stage of his career, created some of the densest, most intricate lyrics in popular music. Yet for all of his talent, Dylan has never been afraid of change, from the early Appalachian folk of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” to the electric rock of “Highway 61 Revisited,” to his born-again period in the mid-80s. What, then, does “Tempest,” Dylan’s first album in three years, hold for the legendary songwriter? This change is more morose, cartoonish, and aged than anything Dylan has put out in years—and, incidentally, “Tempest” is Dylan’s best album since 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.”
There is no question that much of Dylan’s output in past years has been defined by his hoarse, fading voice. Unnoticeable to some, off-putting to others, Dylan’s voice on “Tempest” at times seems to struggle to stay afloat, a rasp that with time has only grown more croakish. Those who have trouble with Dylan’s voice will find the album grating and perhaps annoying. But his snarling voice is part of “Tempest’s” charm; it is an aged, battered, legendary Dylan in reflection exactly fifty years after his first release.
Influenced by classic country, R&B, and blues, “Tempest” features Dylan’s most varied material, ranging from upbeat to downright depressed. “Duquesne Whistle,” a poppy, particularly cartoonish affair, sounds exactly as a song about a train should: filled with bright, muted guitars and up-tempo percussion. “Soon After Midnight” is an incredibly textured track that recalls classic rhythm and blues songs of the mid-1950s. “Early Roman Kings” is a bluesy track uplifted by a classic, infectious riff.
Other parts of the album, however, do not elicit the same emotions—rather, these tracks venture into the darker side of Dylan’s visions. “Scarlet Town” and “Tin Angel,” easily two of the standout tracks, feature instrumentals that live in the mud and the mire, Dylan’s growl merging with ominous, slow, brooding instrumentals.
Other songs, then, are simply outlets for Dylan’s powerful songwriting. “Tempest,” the album’s focal point and title track, is Dylan’s spin on the Titanic story, a morose cut that lasts for thirteen minutes, travelling across the ship as it sinks into the deep. The album’s final track,“Roll On John,” is a bittersweet tribute to John Lennon—sung from a legend who himself seems to be reflecting on his half-century long career.
But what makes Dylan—and, by extension, “Tempest”—truly memorable is his knack for poetry and storytelling. Every track features vivid, powerful images that stay with the listener long after the album is done playing. “Soon After Midnight” features some of Dylan’s oddest images, like “Charlotte’s a harlot/Dresses in scarlet” paired with “It’s soon after midnight/And I’ve got a date with the fairy queen.” “Pay In Blood” is devastating; Dylan describes his weariness and sacrifice throughout the years, with phrases like, “I’m circling around the Southern Zone/I pay in blood, but not my own,” hammering the message home. Whether the beautiful tribute of “Roll On John” or the harrowing “Scarlet Town,” these tracks are gorgeously written, wrought out by a songwriter who knows how to convey concise, gut-wrenching stories.
So “Tempest” may not be “Highway 61 Revisited,” or “Blonde on Blonde,” or even “Time out of Mind.” But was it ever meant to be? With Dylan’s ever-changing and ever-aging voice and outlook, would it even be possible? Dylan has had consistent momentum throughout his career, and while not every listener enjoys it, it shows an artist ready and willing to innovate, to move forward. “Tempest” is its own beast, rich with powerful lyricism and storytelling. Dylan has given us fifty years of America’s finest songwriting, and “Tempest” shows that he isn’t ready to stop just yet.