Today, 50 years after releasing his self-titled debut LP, Bob Dylan unveils Tempest, his 35th studio album. And with it, Dylan, 71, continues what may be the longest uninterrupted era of critical acclaim—including our 4-star review—of his incredible career.
Not that Dylan has ever seemed to care too much for critics' opinions, but since the praise, sales, and awards of 1997's Time Out of Mind, he has maintained a consistent formula of swampy, shuffling, roots rock settings upon which his increasingly ragged voice howls, whistles, winks, and moans.
Elements of Christian theology comingle with folklore, classic poetry, rural history, and oblique personal confession in arresting ways. Though it seems most contemporary Dylanophiles see this era as having begun 15 years ago, the seeds can be found in his often maligned late '80s sets Down in the Groove and Oh Mercy.
Since last month's brief interview with Rolling Stone about the new album, much has been made of the "darkness" of it all. Dylan remarked that he had originally intended for this project to be more specifically "religious" in nature, but the strictures he placed on his songwriting process caused the focus to shift to an assortment of stories and subjects that presented themselves more readily. Those changes notwithstanding, Tempest is as deeply spiritual and haunting as his best work has always been.
Rolling Stone calls it "the single darkest record in Dylan's catalog." The Los Angeles Times, regarding the title track (a 14-minute opus on the sinking of the Titanic), observes, "The reference to an 'inner spirit' implies an outer spirit and in this context suggests an inner transformation under way. And sure enough, Dylan sees an earthly disaster in spiritual terms, and ominously spiritual at that." London's Telegraph notes the album's "dark ruminations," calling it "one of his darkest, bloodiest and most foreboding collections of songs, set in a barren landscape of Godless self-interest, moral equivocation, and random violence."
But if all these experts think such darkness is new to Dylan's work, they haven't really been listening for the last 50 years. In 1962 a 21-year old Dylan concluded his debut album with "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" and this lyric: "Well my heart stopped beating and my hands turned cold / Now I believe what the Bible told."
While Dylan lore has him facing death at least twice (his mysterious motorcycle accident in 1966 and a fungal respiratory infection that affected his heart in 1997), the truth is that he has embraced darker themes from the very beginning. To talk about the "dark side of Bob Dylan" is to imply that there is a light side. Sure, the bard has broken protocol a few times, but even on the sweetest of his love songs—"To Make You Feel My Love," for instance—there is always darkness around the edges.
"Rainy Day Women #12 & 35," with its cartoonish pub-song wailing "Everybody Must Get Stoned," is about persecution and abuse dressed up like a drinking song. Like a master painter, Dylan uses these darker brush strokes to give his songs depth, contrast, and resonance. He may be bending the escapist rules of popular music by constantly contemplating mortality, sin, the dark power of the human heart, and the fallen-ness of the world he calls his temporary home, but his creative DNA is far more informed by traditional blues, country, and folk music than contemporary pop. Thank God.