4/5 It’s no secret that Bob Dylan is an old man. Now 71, after five decades on the road his vocal cords – those that once youthfully declared the times ‘a-changin’ – have been reduced to a barely serviceable growl, while arthritis has rendered him unable to consistently play a guitar live for years now.
But while other rockers (McCartney, Jagger; take note) like to jig around the stage like an embarrassing great uncle on Christmas afternoon, Dylan wilfully accentuates his age. Always one comfortable with an artful muse, since recovering from a mid-’80s, Christian-inspired dirge with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan’s latter-day pose has been that of the time-cracked, wizened troubadour. He’s no longer the voice of the future, but an ironically morbid growl, preaching seemingly from beyond the grave.
The music, too, has continued to devolve as Dylan delves further into the weathered world of the past with each passing release; where 2005’s Modern Times boasted a jazzy swing, 2009’s Together Through Life hummed like a tribute to Chicago’s Chess Records. In spirit, Tempest goes even further back into Americana folklore, long before even Dylan’s primary influence, Woody Guthrie.
While each of these new releases has inevitably been hailed by over-excited critics as the last words of rock’s greatest genius, it’s always foolish to compare Dylan’s renaissance work with his ’60s and ’70s heyday. Yet we’re pretty smitten with Tempest, perhaps his best in decades. The 14-minute title track does drag a little, and Lennon tribute ‘Roll on John’ is more clumsy than you might hope for a songwriter often held up as a poet. But in this sprawling, 68-minute work there’s far more discernable imagery, wit and – most importantly – passion than much of his recent output.
We shudder to say it, but 50 years after his debut LP, this one would mark a fine moment to take one last bow.