Dylan: Brilliant songwriter, brilliant songs, but…
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.
“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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