Bob Dylan's Astonishing Latter-Day Brilliance

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Yes, Tempest, his 35th album, is really, really good. The most impressive thing, though, is that so many listeners still expect his albums to be.

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The first Bob Dylan song I ever fell in love with was "Mississippi," the second track off of Love and Theft, an extraordinary album released under extraordinary circumstances 11 years ago today.I was 22 years old when it came out, Dylan 60—both of us, relatively speaking, old. My parents weren't fans so I hadn't grown up with his music like so many of my friends had; in my teens I'd dutifully acquired classics like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde, only to find them distant and unapproachable, drowned out by their trumpeted importance. After a while I came to regard his music with a side-eyed, petulant aversion, like a kid being told to eat his vegetables.

"Mississippi" changed all of that. It was warm, alive, a gentle rocker with a sneakily beautiful melody, so unadorned it seemed to hide its own perfection like a secret. "I need something strong to distract my mind / I'm gonna look at you till my eyes go blind," sang Dylan, a phrase that fashioned newness from cliché like only the very best writers can. Through "Mississippi" I started to hear things in Dylan's music I'd never heard before, to behold all the trees I'd missed through the forests: the chuckling lilt of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" the sneering grandeur of "Queen Jane Approximately," the delicate sparkle of "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," and everything, everything else.

This is a man at home with his own significance, a man who once chafed at being The Voice of His Generation now generously offering himself as a voice of many.

I write all this because for everything that's been said about Dylan's late-career renaissance one of its simplest miracles is just this, that an icon in the long twilight of his career has mustered the energy and love to once again make music vital enough to win the hearts of generations 40 and 50 years his junior, and on that music's own terms. Today sees the release of the 35th studio album of Bob Dylan's career, Tempest. The album is great, and of course it's great—at this point, 15 years after Time Out of Mind announced his return to some entirely new type of form, that statement seems expected and unremarkable, and that unremarkableness is nothing less than astonishing.

Tempest opens with "Duquesne Whistle," two electric guitars playing a nimble melody against a jauntily strummed acoustic. The bouncing two-beat feel vaguely recalls Louis Armstrong's classic 1920s Hot Fives and Sevens recordings, an evocation furthered when the band erupts and Dylan's voice kicks in, all playful and nuanced growl. We hear cool slabs of distorted guitar, an upright bass pounding away quarter notes, and drums playing a restlessly perfect shuffle. It's a stew of timeless, primordial sounds, performed and recorded with thrilling immediacy (like most everything else he's done since Love and Theft, Tempest is produced by Dylan himself, under the pseudonym "Jack Frost"). "Can't you hear that Duquesne whistle blowin' / blowin' like the skies gonna blow apart / You're the only thing alive that keeps me going / you're like a time bomb in my heart," sings Dylan. Someone teach this guy to write a lyric.

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No musician of the rock and roll era has done more with sprawl than Bob Dylan. "Like a Rolling Stone" rewrote the rules of length in commercial pop music, and "Desolation Row" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" are essentially genres unto themselves. But his recent music tends toward an almost obsessive miniaturism, and Tempest is rife with intricacy. "Long and Wasted Years" boasts a gorgeous descending guitar line that cascades off a swaying 12/8 rhythm, while "Early Roman Kings" features a note-perfect interpolation of Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man" (literally note-perfect: Dylan doesn't even change the key).

Tempest has been called a dark record, and at time it surely is that, but music born from such invention and life can't help but glow. "I'll drink my fill / and sleep alone / I pay in blood / but not my own," Dylan sings on the Zevon-esque "Pay In Blood," and on paper it's a hellishly bleak remark. But rock and roll, bless it, doesn't exist on paper, and the driving rhythm section and chiming guitars conspire to lend a young and mischievous swagger. The album's most buzzed-over composition might be its title track, a 14-minute-long epic about the Titanic replete with a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio ("I don't think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie," remarked Dylan to an interviewer). It's a hypnotically weird piece of music, pulsing with sadness but also a sly and dry humor, as though the song itself is ever so slightly amused at its own existence.

It's been well observed that Dylan's later work is marked by an obsessive engagement with musical history, but that obsession has always been there—it's the primary vestige of Dylan's folk revival upbringing. What's changed is that history itself and Dylan's own position within it. The Dylan who performed Blind Lemon Jefferson's "See That My Grave is Kept Clean" with freakish precocity on his 1962 Columbia debut was a secondary source; the Dylan of Tempest is a primary one, and well-worn at that. Tempest's most affecting track is its last, "Roll On John," a seven-minute elegy for John Lennon. To hear Dylan intone the words, "I heard the news today, oh boy" is itself a breathtaking experience. To hear him pay tribute to one of the few figures of the last 50 years whose influence rivals his own is to hear an artist at home with his own significance, a man who once chafed at being The Voice of His Generation now generously offering himself as a voice of many, to many, among many.

Bob Dylan is a totemic figure in musical history and remains hard at work fashioning that totem, restlessly and lovingly. From Time Out of Mind to Love and Theft to Modern Times to the ravishing 2008 Tell Tale Signs compilation—in my mind, the finest of them all—the past decade and a half has seen some of the finest work of Bob Dylan's career, and Tempest is no exception. Someday his obituary will flatly defy credulity, but for now we can only hope that day comes—to quote another Beatle—many years from now. During an episode of his sadly defunct Theme Time Radio Hour Dylan once introduced a record by the harmonica player Jerry McCain thusly: "He once heard Little Walter play, and it changed his life forever. Music used to do that." Tempest suggests that at 71 years old, Bob Dylan still thinks it can, and of course he's right.

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Jack Hamilton has written for Slate, NPR, and Los Angeles Review of Books. This fall, he will be a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory for Race and Popular Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  

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