Who can forget the gunshot snare drum bang that ushers in Like a Rolling Stone? When Bruce Springsteen gave his riveting keynote address at this year’s SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas he expressed wonder at how it felt to be a teenage and hear Bob Dylan’s compelling description of youthful isolation.

A brilliant songwriter, brilliant songs. Pic: AFP

“And the first thing he asked you was: How does it feel?” said Springsteen.

“Man, how does it feel to be on your own? And if you were a kid in 1965, you were on your own, because your parents, God bless them, they could not understand the incredible changes that were taking place. You were on your own, without a home. He gave us the words to understand our hearts.

“He didn’t treat you like a child. He treated you like an adult. He stood back and he took in the stakes that we were playing for, he laid them out in front of you.”

That’s the impact of a Dylan song. It was the same with so many others. Masters of War, Ballad of Thin Man, My Back Pages, It Ain’t Me Babe, It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), Mr Tambourine Man, A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall, Subterranean Homesick Blues … and that’s just a few years in the 60s.

Through his work with Band – and what that gave us music fans – and his fine 70s records like Blood on the Tracks, Dylan just kept changing our lives.

This remembering is prompted by Dylan’s latest record, Tempest (Columbia). It’s a fine work, probably the best he’s done in more than 10 years – since Love and Theft in 2001.

Two questions arise from listening to Dylan, someone who has been part of life for five decades. First, how good are the songs and the music and how does it fit in Dylan’s longer term canon?

This is a joyous and rich record musically. The band – Dylan’s touring outfit plus one – consists of bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G Receli, steel guitarist Donnie Herron and guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball. The plus one is David Hidalgo from Los Lobos and he just adds good stuff like accordion and fiddle.

There are moments when it’s the finest country swing music you’ve ever heard, with a closed-eyes appearance from Bob Wills coming to mind as you listen to the opener, Duquesne Whistle – a tune co-written with the Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, as were all the songs on the last studio effort, Together Through Life.

Then there is a genuine slice of Delta blues, as echoes of Muddy Waters’s Mannish Boy can be heard in Early Roman Kings. Other blues tastes are scattered throughout, in Narrow Way (which has the delightful couplet, “I’m armed to the hilt, and I’m struggling hard/You won’t get out of here unscarred”) and Pay in Blood.

The title track, a 45 verse telling of the sinking of the Titanic is an epic folk song in the Dylan style with some delicious Celtic-country notes. He’s said he worked on it after “fooling around” with an earlier tune about the maritime disaster, the Carter Family’s The Titanic.

Here Dylan’s attention to detail is characteristically spot-on: “They battened down the hatches/But the hatches wouldn’t hold/They drowned upon the staircase/Of brass and polished gold.”

Elsewhere there are dark themes. A dire love triangle described in Tin Angel ends in grisly murder: “All three lovers together in a heap/Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep/Funeral torches blaze away/Through the towns and villages all night and all day.”

Early Roman Kings tells of despots massacring their people and John Lennon’s killing is a subtext to Roll On John - the least satisfying of the album’s 10 tunes, despite it being a heart-felt tribute from one great songwriter to another.

The bleakest tune is the blues and gospel tinged Pay in Blood, a reflection on a world that contains no light in the darkness. It does hark back to those bitter, spit in your face tunes from the 60s but doesn’t have the emotional impact or the musical power, as strong as the playing and singing might be.

Dylan sings: “Another politician pumping out the piss/Another angry beggar blowing you a kiss/You got the same eyes that your mother does/If only you could prove who your father was/Someone must have slipped a drug in your wine/You gulped it down and you cross the line/Man can’t live by bread alone/I pay in blood, but not my own.”

I love this record and it sits on the second top shelf of my Dylan collection but it isn’t top shelf stuff. You know that when you go back and listen to those zingers from 45 years ago. That was Dylan at the very top of his game. This is a brilliant song writer writing brilliant songs. The difference is vast.

Dylan’s voice has not been better for a long time, perhaps as lyrical as we’ve heard since Nashville Skyline (which has its own echoes on this collection). Charlie Sexton’s gentle guitar is as spell-binding as it’s always been and the band just rocks.

It is great Dylan but it’s not genius.

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58 comments

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    • Emmy says:

      06:50am | 27/09/12

      It is now obvious that Swans love of American muso’s has flowed through to and influenced left leaning commenters to rekindle or acquire a love for the same. Man-love is beautiful to behold. Maybe this infatuation of American muso’s is just Swans way to get Dennis and his mates to write about anything but Labor spending.

    • TChong says:

      07:37am | 27/09/12

      Emmy
      Punch does plenty of articles / storys about politics. Plenty.
      This ISNT one of them.
      Perhaps you can save up all your political comments for an article in which they would be more relavant ?

    • Joan says:

      11:29am | 27/09/12

      TChong: Bob Dylan material often used for political purposes, meanings read into his songs that even surprised Bob Dylan. That`s what happens with poetry and individual interpretation. So lets not be too surprised on Emmy`s take on Atkins piece . - however I do admit Swans name linked here is nauseating.  A Swan free chat on Dylan would have been preferable.

    • TChong says:

      11:58am | 27/09/12

      Time and place for everything, Joan ‘;)

    • david says:

      12:04pm | 27/09/12

      Emmy, I think you’ll find Dennis has been writing these wonderful music pieces long before Wayne Swan mentioned the Boss. As I’ve only read his work on The Punch, so I had no idea Dennis even was a political commentator…

    • subotic says:

      12:56pm | 27/09/12

      Time and place for everything

      German National Socialists said that too back in the 30’s….

    • kaff says:

      01:38pm | 27/09/12

      @subotic - so did the Byrds, although they were quoting Ecclesiastes…

      Turn, turn, turn

    • Mahhrat says:

      07:19am | 27/09/12

      Sorry, who?

    • Mahhrat says:

      09:23am | 27/09/12

      I’d like to apologise for this bit of obvious trolling.

    • the subotic under the stairs says:

      11:08am | 27/09/12

      You’re giving us trolls a bad name…

    • Bruno says:

      12:30pm | 27/09/12

      Bob Dylan was the rebel without a cause who starred in a movie with Marilyn Manson

    • subotic says:

      01:22pm | 27/09/12

      I want the drugs Bruno is on…

    • stephen says:

      08:00am | 27/09/12

      I think in ‘65 he found a gap in the market.

    • Alfie says:

      08:11am | 27/09/12

      Poor Dennis Atkins, still living in the 60’s - when Dylan and Labor used to have credibility.

    • Rod says:

      09:47am | 27/09/12

      Sure beats living in the 50’s where you and your conservative mates want to drag us back to.

    • Positively 4th street says:

      11:21am | 27/09/12

      “I wish for just one moment you could stand inside my shoes
      and then you’d know what a drag it is to see you”

    • AGHAST says:

      12:00pm | 27/09/12

      ..........  and dont criticise what you cant understand..If i may borrow a line of Dylans fron the early 60s that fits a sad negative Alfie astonishingly well today.

    • subotic sugarman says:

      08:15am | 27/09/12

      Dylan: Brilliant songwriter, brilliant songs, but…

      he ain’t no Jesus Rodriguez.

    • Huey says:

      08:49am | 27/09/12

      Good call..Bob had a Silver Magic Ship or two in his time but.

    • sunny says:

      09:49am | 27/09/12

      yeah no one does Mexican Polka like JR

    • subotic crucifies your mind says:

      11:13am | 27/09/12

      Bob Dylan = 500 songs, of which Hendrix did half of them better.

      Sixto “Jesus” Rodriguez = about 32 songs in all, none of which anyone has ever dared to piss around with.

      Now that’s a concrete cold fact…

    • JoniM says:

      02:03pm | 27/09/12

      Spot on Sugar Man !
      I Wonder how many times you’ve been had , Street Boy?

      But Dylan did write a truck load of good songs !
      I must say, I lost interest in him mid 70’s when his voice became too much / too bad for me ! Thousands of great covers by real singers have at least paid tribute to his songwriting ability !
      I gotta say, I do like the sound of his latest band lineup ! Some pretty good players there. With the likes of guitarist Charlie Sexton and David Hidalgo, another great guitarist, being limited to accordian & fiddle parts ?  Seems like a pretty hot band.

    • TChong says:

      08:32am | 27/09/12

      Always been a big fan of Robert , but ,everyone covers Dylan better than Dylan- Bryan Ferrys “Hard Rain “, and Ken Bishops Nice Twelve version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are prime examples.
      Very dissapointed when he played the Ent Cent recently - Bobs rendition of his songs were not worth $100+.

    • TChong says:

      08:31am | 27/09/12

      Always been a big fan of Robert , but ,everyone covers Dylan better than Dylan- Bryan Ferrys “Hard Rain “, and Ken Bishops Nice Twelve version of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” are prime examples.
      Very dissapointed when he played the Ent Cent recently - Bobs rendition of his songs were not worth $100+.

    • Kika says:

      10:54am | 27/09/12

      I totally agree. I like Bob’s songs better when they are done by other people.

    • iansand says:

      08:42am | 27/09/12

      He still can’t sing.

    • Joan says:

      11:42am | 27/09/12

      You must be over70+ if that`s your take.  Dylan on latest album has more gravel than tune in his voice but that`s Dylan and you either like his package, words, music, voice or you don’t . Dylan voice was never about opera or Andy Williams style, that`s another stream and Dylan wouldn’t be Dylan if he did it Andy Williams way.

    • iansand says:

      02:06pm | 27/09/12

      He still can’t sing.  Nor can Leonard Cohen.

    • JoniM says:

      02:11pm | 27/09/12

      His voice has gotten progressively worse over the years !
      Even advances in technology have not been able to cover it up !
      But in the 60’s & 70’s his songs were great, his voice unique and acceptable to listen to. He lost me mid 70’s when his live performances became farcical !

    • stephen says:

      03:23pm | 27/09/12

      Neither Dylan nor Cohen can play their instruments, and that, my friends, sinks them.
      But as anarchic, (supposedly) disjointed and pretentious drivel, they can take the cake and eat it too.

      The latter of those two often gets programmed on ABC radio, and we are meant to wonder how such intelligence ever got caught up with the top 40.

    • Lou says:

      03:29pm | 27/09/12

      You’re all mad. I love Dylan’s voice nowadays, that Tom Waits esque growl that can only come from decades of smoking and drinking.

      But you’re right, he still can’t sing.

    • Max Redlands says:

      05:15pm | 27/09/12

      @ stephen

      Nonsense. In particular Bob is a wondeful and very under - appreciated piano player.

    • stephen says:

      07:44pm | 27/09/12

      Never heard him play.
      But I’m critical so much because he proclaims his hero as Woody Guthrie, who is one of mine.
      The elemental thing to pop music is its energy.
      WG had it, though of course he was quite unsophisticated in his politics - he was right, but the transmission of his message was lost in its clumsiness - yet Bob thinks that he too is a grassroots warbler.
      ICB.
      His Minnesota blues was dead in the water, he got a harmonica, and the rest is boredom.
      He should have been trained properly in music, and got a career instead of a reputation.
      No doubt, though, he is an extreme talent.

    • MD says:

      09:00am | 27/09/12

      I thought this was going to be an article about Dylan being well past it and making a habit of doing terrible live performances.

    • jimbo says:

      09:12am | 27/09/12

      At least we Baby Boomers had Dylan. Name an artist who has come after him who is half as good?  The latest offerings are sub standard rubbish and this includes all rap (artists).  I suppose the standard has slipped because later generations have not enjoyed a real life and are happy to accept anything that is put before them.
      Now, where are my blue pills?

    • Greg says:

      10:57am | 27/09/12

      Jeff Buckley is the newest one I can think of.

      What do I win?

      But seriously Dylan was born in 1941 there have been plenty of excellent bands/singers who came after him, granted none of them new but you didn’t stipulate that they had to be new.

    • amy says:

      11:02am | 27/09/12

      oh look….somone else who has onlyheard the radio and doesnt know how to use the internet

      I know i’m banging my head against a brick wall here but we live in one of the best times in terms of music

      Itunes and the internet has exposed me to all kinds of weird and wonderful music that I would never had dreamed of in the past…my taste is constantly evolving and changing

      oh and your ignorance is quite sad…

    • Markus says:

      11:42am | 27/09/12

      I don’t need to name just a single artist. The beauty of the internet is that the modern music scene can now cover every inch of the globe.

      And while no single artist may have reached the sheer range and longevity of Dylan, many have definitely written absolutely fantastic songs/albums (even if they only managed one), and I can listen to every single one of them with the click of a button.

      Insisting that every great song must come from the same artist is just limiting your own musical experience.

    • JoniM says:

      02:21pm | 27/09/12

      @Greg

      Seriously ! Jeff Buckley was poor imitation of his father Tim Buckley !
      Two albums of music, hardly rivals his dad, let alone Dylan !
      But both Buckleys passed far too soon !

      Joni Mitchell, of the same vintage, is the only one to rival Dylan in terms of prolific quantities of quality songwriting and music that influenced so many others that followed !

    • Woody Guthrie says:

      03:14pm | 27/09/12

      JoniM
      Don’t forget Joan Baez

    • Greg says:

      04:21pm | 27/09/12

      We can play what if’s all day,
      What if singer x had of lived past their 20’s how successful would they be based on what they achieved in their short time making music, someone like Jimi Hendrix being exhibit A

      One thing we can all agree on is that there has been plenty of decent music and artists since Dylan was born in 1941.  Give the music of today 50 odd years and we will see who stands up against the greats.

    • William Smith says:

      07:55pm | 27/09/12

      “Name an artist who has come after him who is half as good?”

      One word: Acca Dacca.

      Bob keeps touring because he’s still striving to reach the pinnacle that is “Big Balls”. My dream supergroup from the 1960s onwards would consist of Angus Young and Malcolm Young on guitars, plus Johnny Young on vocals.

    • sunny says:

      09:19am | 27/09/12

      I’ve never been a Dylan fan because most of his brilliant songwriting and songs lack any kind of powerful delivery. Listening to him sing is (I find) anti-inspiring, he just hasn’t got the vocal range that his songs deserve and IMO sings them at the wrong tempo. Sure you can get inspiration from his lyrics alone but that’s poetry not music. His songs only come to life when they get covered by a good singer, and there’s a long list of great songs written by Dylan that were rescued by a singer who could do justice to them! BTW I reckon if someone like Ben E. King sang Like a Rolling Stone it would have been far more effective.

    • SM says:

      10:54am | 27/09/12

      You’re suggesting Dylan’s original version of Like A Rolling Stone isn’t “powerfully delivered?”

      Good lord…

    • Max Redlands says:

      09:33am | 27/09/12

      I have said this before but when all the other rock bands and pop singers and wannabe “sensitive artists” are dead, buried and forgotten Dylan will be remembered as the Shakespeare of our time.

      To borrow a line from Wilde:  he put his talent into his art - he’s put his genius into his life.

      The most notable thing for me is his complete refusal to “play the game”.He has made a career out of disappointing people’s expectations. Booed when he went electric, derided for “going country” and looked at in dumbfounded amazement when he announced he was a born again christian.

      Above all he has a great sense of humour.

      He said it:

      “Folk music is a bunch of fat people.”

      “What good are fans? You can’t eat applause for breakfast. You can’t sleep with it.”

      “All this talk about equality. The only thing people really have in common is that they are all going to die.”

      “Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.”

      “Democracy don’t rule the world, You’d better get that in your head; This world is ruled by violence, But I guess that’s better left unsaid.”

    • Black Dynamite says:

      09:39am | 27/09/12

      Went to him a few years ago, his voice is shot sounds like he’s be gargling marbles for 40 years.

      BD

    • Blues & Roots fan says:

      12:44pm | 27/09/12

      heard him at the blue and roots festival last year.
      I love his music, but he was terrible.

      I was so disappointed. I walked out midway through his set.
      I prefer to remember the original recordings he made. I have no idea what he is still doing going through the motions. Surely he doesn’t need the money.

    • HappyG says:

      10:11am | 27/09/12

      Thank you Dennis for an appraisal of a record. Done with some knowledge and honesty. I fail to see how some dim wits can relate an article about a new record by an American folk rock legend to a) the Labor party b) left - right politics or c) Wayne Swan FFS. Guess they’re just not that bright.

    • Rowdy says:

      10:18am | 27/09/12

      The best thing to happen to Bob Dylan was Mike Bloomfield….

    • stephen says:

      03:31pm | 27/09/12

      The best thing to happen to Bob Dylan hasn’t happened yet ... and when it does, Kath and Kim are gonna bake a sponge with Bob atop, mouthing his organ, and then there be a thousand retrospectives with bogans got their hands on their knees, elbows out ... ‘yeah bro, what a classic, straight down the line, what you see is what you get, a real classic.’

    • amy says:

      11:03am | 27/09/12

      I listened to thsi Bob Dillan guy…...wheres the bass drop?

      seriously theres no Bass Drop

    • subotic bangarangs your ass says:

      12:50pm | 27/09/12

      Skrillex Dylan, where are you?

    • Markus says:

      11:47am | 27/09/12

      A talentless hack who has forged a career out of stealing other people’s music.

      Brian Ferry, The Byrds, Hendrix, even as far as Guns N Roses.
      The guy seriously has no shame.

    • Swamp Thing says:

      01:42pm | 27/09/12

      @Markus - is that you John Wayne?

    • the cynic says:

      02:46pm | 27/09/12

      Dylan’s musical grading. Songwriter 10 singer 0.  Could never figure why he ever thought he could sing. His mother should have had a lot of explaining to do telling him lies all those years ago.

    • Cynicsed says:

      04:23pm | 27/09/12

       Ah, Bob Dylan. As others have said, songwriter extraordinaire, voice like an old rusty gate, but powerful, moody delivery in his heyday. Now, I much prefer Dylan covers too. One can appreciate the lyrics and the melodies far better when one’s ears aren’t bleeding.

 

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