A Thought on Longevity Prompted by Bob Dylan’s Tempest

posted by Tom on September 18, 2012 at 5:34 pm
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Overrated: Hanging around a long time.

Underrated: Hanging around a long time while contributing ideas and sounds that speak to current conditions.

That distinction has been on my mind since I began grappling with Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album, Tempest, a few weeks ago. The Rolling Stones deserve the gold watch and whatever goes with it for simply remaining active – for surviving. Given the circumstances, that’s unquestionably an accomplishment.

Dylan is different.

Fifty years into his recording career and he's still at the desk, cobbling together words and phrases that tell a kind of cryptic truth. Above all else, he’s still curious, engaged in the pursuit of apt, wildly extended metaphors and the wiley rambunctious American rhythms that make them resonate. In various places on Tempest, on the riff songs and the story songs, he sounds bitter and/or befuddled, fed up with greed and deceit, ready to answer all sorts of injustice with violence – or maybe those veiled words were intended as cautions about flashpoint anger? Even he might not know for sure.

Reviews of Tempest enthuse about the blazing precision of the bard’s band, and marvel at Dylan’s caustic tone, whether he’s plowing through history or accounts of romantic malfeasance. They note Dylan’s long years of service and undeniable (and truly immeasurable) impact on the culture. And then, just for balance, they mention the windbag tendencies of the title track (46 verses!) and the droning tone of the mawkish tragic-ballad closer “Roll On John,” and conclude that hey, this is a mixed bag! It’s not as uniformly brilliant as Blood On the Tracks!

For me, that’s one of the album’s endearing traits: It is rumpled and coarse, much like the culture it describes. It’s not an inventory of recent economic calamities (for that, see Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball) but a panoramic view of the prevailing thinking and the greed that drove the financial markets toward disaster. There may be more pointed diatribes on the subject from other voices, but none of them have this artist’s perspective – or that voice of gravel gravitas, which provides some of the verses with an oddly elegant mortality-clock punctuation.

“Awe” is a strong word. But it applies here. Unlike most of his rock-era peers, Bob Dylan is not serving up reheats – he’s still scrounging, phrase by elusive phrase, to make sense of what he sees around him, and more than occasionally he lands on something poignant and unassailable, some spark that throws new light on things. We don’t have many elders who are doing that these days – Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney maybe. Really, to appreciate Dylan-level longevity, it helps to look outside of pop, to luminaries like Pablo Picasso, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. These people didn’t merely keep on keeping on – they continued to shake things up, in profound and sometimes radical ways, long after the coolhunters moved on.

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