Bob Dylan is one such artist. His name is forever tied to folk and the folk tradition, roots music, the songs of the past. And with a new album out, called "Tempest," much of his history is being discussed by rock critics and fans ... and non-fans, too. And some of that history is seemingly embraced, as Bob performs material that evokes "old-time" music from long-gone eras when wax and radio were magic and spiritual and life-affirming and scary ... Music wasn't just streamed, picked and chosen, praised for hooks or breasts or being bizarre.
Mention Dylan's name to passive fans or non-fans, they'll at least know some of the Sixties stuff. From the folk poet of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'" to the speed-driven surrealist of "Desolation Row" and "Like a Rolling Stone."
If these folks have a little more depth, they might also know of "Tangled Up in Blue" or "Shelter from the Storm" from the classic "Blood on the Tracks" album. Or maybe they've heard "Hurricane" from the "Desire" record. Surely they'll recognize "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" ... but maybe not.
And maybe, just maybe, they'll know about the so-called "Born Again" period that produced such classics as "Gotta Serve Somebody" and "Every Grain of Sand." Maybe John Lennon wasn't too impressed by this period, but hey ... it was controversial, so some folks have surely heard some of this music.
Or maybe the use of some of Dylan's songs in popular films will bring a couple of obscurities to mind. "High Fidelity" and "The Big Lebowski," among other flicks, used some Bob songs that were far from being chart toppers ("Most of the Time" and "The Man In Me," respectively).
And there's the chance some might remember his "Time Out of Mind" album, which won album of the year and other honors against his son's band, The Wallflowers. The Wallflowers were big in the late 1990s, especially on the strength of their sophomore album "Bringing Down the Horse," and songs like "One Headline" were all over the place. So Bob winning those awards (especially the Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocalist for the song "Cold Irons Bound") brought his material to some younger listeners, undoubtedly.
Or folks might just know Dylan's name from being the guy who wrote some songs covered by Peter, Paul and Mary. Songs performed by Manfred Mann. Songs brought to the radio by The Byrds. Maybe folks know Stevie Wonder's version of "Blowin' In The Wind" and have no clue that some nasally white boy from Minnesota has the songwriting credit. It's safe to suggest that many are aware of Dylan's history through the songs that others covered.
Mention Dylan's name to critics, and thousands upon thousands of words will be shared. Folks will discuss his origins in Minnesota, or bring about the old chestnut of him passing himself off as Bobby Vee early in his career to secure work, the travels to New York, how he met Woody Guthrie, his first go-arounds with Joan Baez, his marriages, his times with The Band, the motorcycle accident that tamed the "Blonde on Blonde" maniac and turned him into the contemplative bard of "John Wesley Harding," and so much more.
Some will be quick to call him an American Shakespeare, others a tired usurper and plagiarist. Is he the greatest observer of the human condition, or is he just one of the luckiest guys to strum a guitar? I guess it all depends on the person listening.
But even with all of that, the surface of Dylan's career is just barely scratched. Some of the above is fact, certainly. But as is often the case with history, much of it has been distorted or exaggerated. But the recorded material stands the test of time for listeners to discover for themselves when they are ready.
But sometimes that isn't enough. Sometimes having a body of work isn't enough. Sometimes having awards, critical plaudits, presidential honors, congressional honors, honorary degrees and being in Halls of Fame isn't enough. It's hard to live up to your reputation, especially if you're not ready to give up, die and let your legacy take over.
Bob has had to deal with criticisms, fair and unreasonable, since the beginning. From accusations of being a Woody Guthrie copycat, to ripping off contemporary folk artists, to stealing the spotlight from better artists, to ripping off music and lyrics ... to being accused of cluttered productions, sterile productions, slapdash productions, sparse productions ... to being accused of having too nasally of a voice, to NOT having a nasally ENOUGH voice, to having a rattled old cigarette-shredded gravelly voice ...
I mean, seriously, it's all enough to give FANS a complex ... and they aren't the focus of those judgments.
For the last several albums, Bob has been treading some familiar grounds. Rockabilly, blues, 1950s roots rock, touches of blue grass, some gospel ... From "Love and Theft" to "Tempest," Dylan's albums have almost been collections of Americana unto themselves.
But this has come with criticisms along with praise. Guitar riffs, melodies, chord progressions, lyrics (from phrases to whole lines) have been tied back to artists from the 1920s. Or from artists from across the world. Many times, those artists weren't credited as co-writers, and some have nailed Bob for that.
I have no dogs in that fight, so I won't comment on it further than acknowledging that those situations exist. But they've always existed, and the folk medium (of which Bob has been related to for the entirety of his career, in the purest sense of passing material down the line) is strongly based on artists performing old classics or borrowing from those classics in their own adaptations. I guess, as far as I'm concerned, it's nothing new so it isn't much of a controversy for me. Whether he's updating a Child ballad or tackling a Japanese poet, it doesn't much matter to me. What matters to me is whether or not the material is GOOD. And exposure for any other artist's materials kind of keeps that artist alive, I think.
It seems to me that Bob has found a sound and a feeling that he enjoys, that he finds comfortable and encouraging. If he isn't blazing new paths of sound and fury, he certainly has found a blend that grabs the ear and suits the imagery and tone of his words (and his vocals).
With critics ranging from those who want more protest music, to others wanting surreal raps, to others wanting some spiritual material, it's just so hard to please anything close to a majority. And with music criticism growing and growing, as more magazines emerge and more blogs (including this one, I suppose) espousing opinions on his work, Bob might find himself in the position of realizing that there are no CORRECT choices to make in his career. There is no golden answer, no guaranteed decision, no perfect formula to please a varied fanbase (and even if there was such a thing, he's a bit of a contrarian and wouldn't necessarily want to bow to it anyway ... "Blind Willy McTell," anyone?). He may no longer be trying to serve somebody ... perhaps he's following his old friend John Lennon's advice to "serve yourself." If that's the case, well, it's led to some good music on the last handful of records.
This is a lot of preamble to get to discussing the new Dylan album, but I feel it's fairly worthwhile to bring it all up. Why? Well, I think it sets a scene.
Dylan's "Tempest" is another self-produced album (Jack Frost Productions being Dylan himself), and he is relying on his touring band (which he's used on previous works) to get that groove, that feel that he has grown comfortable with.
Some folks may find "Tempest" and the records before it rather ... uniform. While I disagree with the general assessment, I can understand that listeners -- especially those who thrive on popular music that can, at turns, offer Katy Perry or Lady GaGa or Kanye West or Jay-Z or Beyonce or Miley Cyrus -- may be flat out BORED by hearing guitars, piano, the occasional mandolin, a harmonica, maybe some tambourine or accordion. It isn't peppy music (well, actually, sometimes some of these songs kind of are), but there's variety in them thar tracks.
I've yet to give "Tempest" a listen. I intend to rectify that ... tonight. I haven't done a live blog in a long time, and I figure this album is certainly worthy.
I intend to go into this record with a pretty open mind. I have respect for Dylan the poet, Dylan the singer, Dylan the interpreter, Dylan the performer, Dylan the entertainer and Dylan the curmudgeon. He has a sense of humor, a certain swing, and an appreciation and insight to the human experience that often reminds me (and many others) of Mark Twain.
And even when he tackles decidedly odd topics (as he does on "Tempest" with a song apparently devoted to the Leonardo DiCaprio "Titanic" film), Bob's tracks are seldom one-dimensional or lightweight. This doesn't mean I overlook weaker work, or that I like everything he's done on his last few albums. I dearly love "Love and Theft," and I have a huge appreciation for "Modern Times." But "Together Through Life" didn't charm me nearly as much as I had hoped it would, and his Christmas album was a bit ... unexpected (though I like a handful of the tracks more than I thought I would). Still, I'm hoping "Tempest" will outshine its predecessors.
Many have pointed out that "The Tempest" was William Shakespeare's last play. And with "Tempest" being Dylan's 35th album and it coming out 50 years after Dylan's first album ... well, many think this collection of songs could be the last Dylan intends to issue. Bob himself has gone on record to dismiss this notion, so I'll choose not to listen to the record with any preconception that this could be a final testament by Robert Zimmerman.
All right, I think I've blathered on long enough. It's time to pop the disc into a player and find out just how great (or poor, or mediocre) the stuff really is. I've only heard a few of the tracks that were previewed in the weeks leading up to the album's release ("Early Roman Kings," "Scarlet Town" and "Duquesne Whistle"), so the rest is virgin territory to my ears.
The plastic has been removed from "Tempest," and I'm ready to take the album in as a whole, letting the tracks build upon each other.
Let's dive in, shall we?
I'll use the comments field to give my thoughts as I listen. Please feel free to give your thoughts, as I'm always interested in what others think / feel from music.