‘Long and Wasted Years’ – Some First Impressions of Bob Dylan’s ‘Tempest’

Let’s run this review in reverse. Bob Dylan’s latest album, ‘Tempest’, is not a masterpiece. Worse than that, although it unquestionably offers much to enjoy, admire, and even celebrate, its flaws are sufficiently serious to disqualify it from any claims to greatness. In fact, if we were still inhabiting the olden days of vinyl, we’d be saying that this is an ill-balanced ‘record’ of two halves, with ‘side one’ of the album being by far the strongest. Overall, this is a very good set of songs, with some frustratingly grievous shortcomings. It’s not quite as good as the very best of his late period work, but it is, overall, a lot better than his last couple of studio albums. It’s lyrically rich, if musically uninspiring, and its best tracks should stand the test of time as well as anything he’s done since, say, 1990.

Given the hype that comes as standard these days with any Dylan release, and the hopes of the faithful that the Great Man may yet produce one more all-time classic – before the mortality that’s been a key lyrical theme of his late period finally claims him, sealing up the living discography and bringing the never-ending tour to a halt – this assessment might seem disappointingly bleak. That would be a false impression, however: for one thing, Dylan’s greatness is such that even his mediocre works tower forbiddingly over the best of the rest of contemporary popular music; more importantly, perhaps the most apposite way of summing up this album’s place in the canon would be to say that it lays a much better claim to an affinity with ‘Time Out of Mind’ and ‘Love & Theft’ than Dylan’s wildly overrated 2006 album, ‘Modern Times’, which is often cited as part three in a glorious ‘comeback’ trilogy.

Timing is everything. After the underrated and misunderstood ‘Under the Red Sky’ album in 1990, Dylan didn’t release another set of original material until ‘Time Out of Mind’ in 1997, meaning he basically spent the 1990s in a critical blackout. During those years, and contrary to received wisdom at the time, he gave some of his best post-60s concert performances, and released two albums of folk and blues covers (‘Good as I Been to You ‘ and ‘World Gone Wrong’) that garnered little fanfare but which, were they issued today, would be hailed as masterpieces. ‘Modern Times’, on the other hand, was released during the full flush of what we might call Bob Dylan’s ‘second critical honeymoon’, a period when mainstream critics, still reeling from the revelation – brought about by ‘Time Out of Mind’ – that Dylan had never been the has-been they’d long taken him for, had become swooningly incapable of discerning any gradations of greatness in Dylan’s works.

That Dylan followed his 1997 return from the wilderness with 2001′s exuberant, multifaceted ‘Love & Theft’ – an album whose relative merits, vis-à-vis its predecessor, critics and fans are still debating today – only served to seal his newfound critical sanctification. Thus ‘Modern Times’, an album that contained a few decent tracks but which generally wallowed in bloated, blues-by-numbers monotony, was declared to be a classic. ‘Together Through Life’, released to an unsuspecting world in 2009, doubtless benefited from both this blind critical fervour, and the fact that its lightness and relative brevity were a blessed relief after the turgidity of ‘Modern Times’; nevertheless, that album was an eminently disposable work which really ought to have seen the light in partial form only, its few worthwhile tracks maybe surfacing on a future ‘Bootleg Series’ release. Thus ‘Tempest’, Dylan’s 35th studio album, presents itself as the rightful heir to Dylan’s last truly great set of songs, ‘Love & Theft’.

Again, let’s not pussy-foot around. ‘Tempest’ can’t compete with, or in truth even be seriously compared to, ‘Love & Theft’. At this stage, it seems highly unlikely that Dylan (or anyone else, for that matter) will ever conjure anything nearly so sustainedly brilliant again. That said, the best tracks on ‘Tempest’ could sit unashamedly alongside those from ‘Love & Theft’ or ‘Time Out of Mind’. Indeed, if you were aiming to assemble some sort of ten track ‘best of’ compilation, documenting Dylan’s ‘Critical Renaissance Period’ in chronological release date order, you might – depending on taste – start your list with something along the lines of:

1. Standing in the Doorway

2. Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

3. Not Dark Yet

4. Things Have Changed

5. Mississippi

6. Floater (Too Much to Ask)

7. Po’ Boy

8. Red River Shore


So, having used up 8 out of 10 tracks – mixing three parts ‘Time Out of Mind’, to one part Oscar-winning single, three parts ‘Love & Theft’, no parts ‘Modern Times’, one part ‘Bootleg Series Volume 8 (Tell Tale Signs)’, and no parts ‘Together Through Life’ – this would leave two slots spare for ‘Tempest’. How to fill them?

Selecting the new album’s best tracks means first discarding those which most acutely exemplify the album’s more serious faults. These could best be summarised by lamenting the fact that Dylan has stuck so rigidly to a now wearily familiar musical template. His favoured mode, many have noted, remains a slow, listless shuffle; combine this with a tendency to let songs ramble on for ages, and you have a recipe for irresistibly attracting the listener’s finger to the ‘Skip’ button. Equally vexing is Dylan’s continued reliance on stale, reheated blues riffs; plus his seeming refusal to let his band – fiercely skilled musicians, all – deviate from such a stagnant pool of musical ideas.

Of course, selecting the new album’s best tracks also means making judgements that we know may be precipitant, since almost every Dylan album is a ‘grower’, whose full measure can never be taken at first, second, or even twentieth listen. A Dylan album must be lived with over a period of time, before it eventually settles into its rightful position in the listener’s affections. Perhaps ‘settled’ is not the right word, as over time Dylan’s albums, and the songs they contain, tend to wax and wane in both the critical consensus, and in the individual fan’s affections. First impressions are, therefore, more unreliable than usual, in Dylan’s case.

That said, a number of tracks here are so indelibly scarred by the failings mentioned above, recalling the worst, most redundant excesses of ‘Modern Times’, that they automatically exclude themselves from our putative compilation. ‘Early Roman Kings’, despite playing host to some interesting lyrics, has a central riff so insistently annoying that listening to the song’s full five minutes becomes a purgatorial experience. Other tracks just about manage to survive the imposition of dourly repetitive riffing, their positive qualities tipping the balance away from dreariness, towards lasting value. Even some of these, such as such as ‘Narrow Way’, at seven and a half minutes, could have done with some trimming.

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Every One of Them Words Rang True

Every One of Them Words Rang True: The Defiance of Time in Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.


Back in 2006, Bob Dylan was interviewed for yet another ‘Rolling Stone’ cover story. Looking back on the tumultuous decade in which he’d first made his name, Dylan reminded the interviewer, Jonathan Lethem, that he was “talking to someone who owns the Sixties”. Which is true. The flip side, though, is that for a long time, the Sixties seemed to pretty much own Bob Dylan. It was as though he had signed some kind of Faustian bargain with the spirit of that decade, guaranteeing him phenomenal artistic success and a quasi-religious following, but forbidding him ever to evolve beyond it. Had his infamous motorcycle crash in 1966 actually killed him, it might have been seen as a fitting end to Dylan’s story: it could have been his James Dean moment, the 500cc Triumph Tiger serving as a perfect metaphor for the breakneck speed and unpredictable trajectory of his Sixties career. Like some sort of countercultural Icarus, they’d have said, he flew too high, too fast, and was thrown back to the ground. Tragic, but inevitable.

Instead, after an ominous hiatus during which all sorts of rumours about the crash circulated, Dylan returned; but the Dylan who returned seemed even more of an enigma than the one who’d momentarily vanished. If Dylan’s audience had trouble relating to the new Dylan who emerged, Dylan himself had problems relating to his own art, and even his own sense of self:

“Well, it wasn’t that the crash was so bad. I couldn’t handle the fall. I was just too spaced out. So it took me a while to get my senses back. And once I got them back I couldn’t remember too much. It was almost as if I had amnesia. I just couldn’t connect for a long, long time.”

A lot of Dylan fans soon began to share that sense of disconnection. To many, Dylan’s post-crash career proved a letdown. If the stripped-back countrified arrangements and minimalist, biblically flavoured lyrics of ‘John Wesley Harding’ were bad enough, then subsequent albums such as ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘New Morning’ seemed ten times worse. By the mid 1970s, Dylan was seen as an anachronism, an artist whose only contemporary appeal was retrospective. The hugely successful 1974 ‘comeback’ tour with The Band, which had filled stadiums and set records for ticket sales, was viewed as an exercise in nostalgia, a chance for aging hippies and well-fed baby boomers to fondly recall the high tides of the Sixties from the calmer, more contented shores of the Seventies.

The 74 tour had coincided with the release of Dylan’s 14th studio album, ‘Planet Waves’, which received a fairly muted response: it did hit Number 1 on the US album chart, but only because of pre-sales; business dropped off sharply, and overall it was far from a spectacular success, particularly when compared with the record-breaking popularity of the tour. This served to reinforce the impression that Dylan was very much an artist of the Sixties. He had dominated that decade, but now that decade was becoming an albatross around his neck, threatening to drag him under. As the Sixties receded into the past, so the cultural phenomenon known as ‘Bob Dylan’, once such a powerful force, appeared to be ebbing slowly away.

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Twenty years of schoolin’

Twenty years of schoolin’ – Dylan & Scorsese, Together Again

Who could fail to be mesmerised by the footage of Bob Dylan – legs bent, voice ragged but still powerfully expressive, silvery grey birds-nest hair blazing atop a hatless head – performing an eerily beautiful ‘Blind Willie McTell’ in “tribute to” Martin Scorsese, at the Critics’ Choice Music Awards the other night?

Forget for a moment the fact that Dylan gave the performance his all, or that the arrangement was (relative to what’s generally the norm these days) short and stripped back, or that the harmonica breaks were controlled and eloquent rather than blustery and fierce. No, what stood out was how apt the choice of song was for both of these great artists, whether Dylan was truly “paying tribute” or not (and Scorsese’s bemused half-grimace at the word ‘tribute’ implied he wasn’t quite accepting the term himself, perhaps subconsciously deferring to the song’s original dedicatee).

No matter, because both these great artists – acquaintances and kindreds over the years via many intertwining musical, cinematic, and cultural channels – have soared high and plunged low in critical (not to mention commercial) favour, more than once. They’ve been down, been kicked, been re-embraced and reappraised, and been seen to accept it all with a wry smile and a knowing nod.

Long before Martin Scorsese tied his tightest connection with Dylan, via 2005′s ‘No Direction Home’ documentary, he’d carried Bob’s words through their mutual old stamping ground of Greenwich Village, Dylan’s urban hipster hymn ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ donating a lyric – “Twenty years of schoolin’ and they put you on the day shift” – as the totemic epigram inscribed at the head of the shooting script for ‘Mean Streets’.

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The Dream Never Dissolves: Taschen’s ‘Movie Icons’

Taschen’s ‘Movie Icons’ series offers a chance to ponder the particularities of iconic movie stills.

“She gave great still. She is funnier in stills, sexier, more mysterious, and protected against being. And still pictures may yet triumph over movies in the history of media. For stills are more available to the imagination.”

- David Thomson on Marilyn Monroe

In the olden days of the Hollywood dream factory, when movie stars were doggedly elusive and – not coincidentally – infinitely more interesting, the big Studios rigorously controlled access to their stars, radically adjusting their accessibility levels according to context: on one side, no press people got any kind of unmediated access to the likes of Bogart or Gable – the Studios controlled and choreographed all such encounters; at the same time, stars were made to make themselves available for publicity duties at the behest of the moguls who called the shots. Studio publicity departments were adroit at image-massaging machinations. If a male star, say, was the subject of rumours which threatened to undermine his perceived heterosexuality, then a suitable starlet would be lined up to publicly accompany him to a première or party, acting as a twinkly-eyed beard. It was the age of the ‘publicity still’. Elaborate tableaux were constructed into which the compliant actors were expected to step at the last moment, to have their photographs taken surrounded by suitably image-reinforcing paraphernalia. The resultant shots were at once utterly disconnected from the actors’ presence in their films, yet also somehow of a piece with their existence as ‘stars’.

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Michael Gray

Websites We Love – Part 1 – Michael Gray

“Let me introduce you to, uh, a friend of ours…”

Oomska’s favourite music critic, Michael Gray, has a brand new website, here:




Most people will know Michael Gray as the world’s leading authority on Bob Dylan’s music, author of essential texts such as ‘Song & Dance Man’, and ‘The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia’.

His new site is a treasure trove of writing, photos, resources and recommendations.

And of course he still maintains his thriving, always interesting Bob Dylan Encyclopedia Blog

Best news of all: Michael has recently released a wonderful CD containing recordings of some of the Dylan Encyclopedia’s most insightful and entertaining entries. Anybody who has attended one of Michael’s talks will know just how well he presents this material; anybody who hasn’t should snap up a copy of this CD and find out. Highly recommended.