Bob Dylan’s new album, his 35th for those counting, is good. Not great, as some of you may have heard, but good. Called simply Tempest, it’s very much a continuation of the same ragged, old-timey blues he’s been turning out with startlingly efficiency since his 1997 return to prominence with Time Out Of Mind. While that record was filled with a very real sense of mortality (he was in ill health at the time), later releases have been more light-hearted, shedding that record’s ominous gloom for a more spirited sound courtesy of his touring band – though lyrically they have still contained plenty of bite.
Tempest shares it’s name with Shakespeare’s final play leaving some to the conclusion that it will be Dylan’s last, something he has flat-out denied. That said, while it lacks the apocalyptic dread of Time Out Of Mind (another record many assumed would be his last), there’s a sense of finality here, not least in the sprawling 14 minute title track which chronicles the sinking of the Titanic. Opening number Duquesne Whistle gets things off to a deceptively jolly start, but by Long and Wasted Years, death and regret are back on the cards.
The problem is that while Tempest is unquestionably a good record, it feels like something of a retread. This is the same sort of thing Dylan’s been doing for years now and familiarity is beginning to breed contempt. Dylan’s possessed croak is as hypnotic as ever, scowling and spitting bile at every woman that ever wronged him and his band are as characteristically professional as they were on his last three albums. In fact ‘professional’ is a good word to describe Tempest as a whole. That is to say it’s well constructed, but rarely inspired. There’s nothing on here to match Love and Theft’s –Mississippi or Together Through Life’s – Beyond Here Lies Nothing. That said, just when things seem a little too comfortable or over-familiar, you can count on Dylan to spew out a truly remarkable lyric. “Get up, stand up, you greedy-lipped wench” he snarls on Tin Angel. “You are making my heart feel sick, put your clothes back on double-quick.” Who else in music today could get away with that? Fantastic.
If nothing else, Tempest is far better than the 35th studio album by an artist who has been recording for 50 years now has any right to be. It speaks volumes for the quality of Dylan’s other recent efforts that compared to them Tempest can only be considered an average outing. So, it’s good then. Let’s hope the next one’s great. There will be a next one, right?