By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 13, 2012
My wife has decreed that we will no longer attend Bob Dylan concerts. I was slow to agree, but I have come around. In live performance, you can hear every one of Dylan’s 71 years. It’s not just that Dylan loathes playing his songs the same way twice and that his updated versions seem more random than inspired. It’s equally that his voice is cracked, rough as a rancher’s hands. To compensate, he plays a lot of guitar, even a bit of piano. In essence, you’re watching a brilliant instrumental band playing songs you barely recognize, peppered with the occasional vocal.
The recordings are something else.
In the mid-1980s, Dylan asked Mark Knopfler to be his producer. “I’d like my records to sound more … professional,” he said. The collaboration didn’t last, and Dylan turned to producing himself, using the name “Jack Frost.”
Dylan has become a brilliant producer.
“Tempest” --- Dylan’s 35th CD, released half a century after he burst on the scene as a latter-day folk singer --- is the proof. Critics are falling all over themselves to praise it; some say it’s in his top ten. Too soon to tell, I think. But “Jack Frost” has mixed these 10 songs so Dylan’s rasp is appealing and then some. As for the band, it’s just beyond. “Tempest” is very much worth your time and attention. [To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]
What’s to love?
The range. Dylan has the entire history of modern music in his head, and he draws upon it to create the greatest variety of genres in recent memory. Not that he’s slavishly recreating long-forgotten classics. “Tempest,” like the best of Dylan, is a swirl --- especially the lyrics, which range from highly focused to free association. But as smart as they are, and as dark as they can be, it’s wrong to listen to “Tempest” as if it were a literary document, the musical equivalent of, say, Shakespeare’s play. These are stories told by our greatest musical storyteller. The value is in the music as much as the words.
What does it mean? Don’t go there. Dylan doesn’t particularly “mean” anything. If anything, this is the takeaway: experience counts. And cunning. And belief you've still got the chops. Use what you’ve got to get what you need.
“I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/ There're secrets in them I can't disguise.”