When Bob Dylan retreated to Woodstock in 1967 and began writing and recording songs with The Band, those oft- bootlegged sessions soon became the stuff of legend. The new material had deep roots and was quintessentially American. For Dylan this was an opportunity to recharge his batteries after burning out on drugs and the music business. Here the zeitgeist was with him, as many people embraced the opportunity to feel realigned, especially after the 1968 release of The Band’s Music From Big Pink brought a more down to earth aesthetic to the table.
Recently that urge to get back to the roots has been a steadily reoccurring narrative in our music culture, and to this list we can add Dylan himself—which is a good thing, as the albums between Infidels and Love and Theft struggled to find a sound that suited him. Often overproduced, these records strained to put Dylan’s music into a contemporary context.
Which made Love and Theft all the sweeter. The 2001 effort ushered in a sound that, like The Basement Tapes, was based on a rich blend of American roots music, and the more rough-hewn style seemed more compatible with his increasingly ragged voice. Tellingly, the album was produced by Jack Frost, alias Bob Dylan, who also produced Modern Times and Together Through Life. True to form, the self-produced Tempest features mandolins, violins, banjos, acoustic and steel guitars, upright bass, and accordion playing strains of country, country swing, blues, rockabilly, and folk music. Lyrically, too, the past is present. The opener “Duquesne Whistle” is an upbeat ditty that unapologetically uses stock nostalgic imagery with lines like “You’re smiling through the fence at me” and “I wonder if that old oak tree’s still standing.”
The tone quickly darkens, however, as Dylan trots out a hard-edged cast of characters that includes gamblers, pimps, thieves, “two-timing Slim,” loiterers, plunderers, adulterers, angry beggars, drug addicts, alcoholics, whores, peddlers and meddlers, harlots, murderers, jealous lovers, a suicide victim, and the British Army. The evil-doing on Tempest has a Nineteenth Century ring to it, as does some deliberately archaic diction and heavy-handed meter. In theory such devices shouldn’t work, but count them among the lyrical rules that Dylan breaks with aplomb. Non sequiturs abound, and the cadence sometimes falls apart completely, while some lines are just plain weird (“What you doing out there in the sun anyway/Don’t you know, the sun can burn your brains right out”).
On less inspired efforts Dylan seemed to be releasing product just to stay in the game. Here he’s brimming with ideas, to the point where the formalist in you might say he’s trying to stuff too much into one song. Me, I like the messiness— and I wish some of it had spilled over into the recording, where the instruments are relegated to the background and woven together almost seamlessly behind Dylan’s voice, minimizing individual contributions while creating a sense of artificial separation between the band and the singer.