Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re aware that Bob Dylan released a new album today, and with it the canonization continues. With the reflex of a congregant, Jody Rosen, who reviewed it for the New Yorker, calls it a collection of “beautifully written songs.” The voice is rough, he admits, but wonders “If he sauces up his vocals with a little extra wheeze and rasp—well, what do you think the Voice of Experience sounds like?” If that’s correct (caps and all) I suppose the Voice of Experience sounds like Shit. Rosen compares the sound of his voice on this album to Tom Waits, which must infuriate Waits fans. Waits is a persona, not a codger playing at the rebellion of youth; Waits conjures narratives, Dylan conjures other things, like a missed retirement opportunity.
There are albums of Dylan’s that I adore, including “Desire,” and I regret that I missed the Rolling Thunder tour, which must have been really something. And, yes, there is work of his that is simply astonishing, such as perhaps everything from his second and third records. Really, anything there has a value that is rarely seen in pop music. And like Bach, he’s given us lots of songs to play. Dylan cognoscenti will balk when I say this, but who can doubt the ongoing value of songs like “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and “I Shall be Released”? Dylan and others have done great things with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Sarah Jarosz did a wonderful cover of “Ring Them Bells,” wonderful both in what she does with it and also for the brilliance that she demonstrates was already there.
But this new album is half a century and a world away from that. On “Tempest,” for example, he gives us a song that has 35 verses, goes on for just shy of 14 minutes, and recounts the sinking of the Titanic:
The night was black with starlight
The seas were sharp and clear
Moving through the shadows, the promised hour was near
Lights were holding steady, riding o’er the foam
All the lords and ladies heading for their eternal home
Yikes. In what way was it “promised?” And were they really lords and ladies? And it goes on and on and on. You’ll be forgiven for having to pause it midway for a bathroom break. There’s a “Leo” in there too, which apparently really is a reference to DeCaprio. In the end the boat sinks again and this song merely adds to the ongoing tragedy of it all.
It takes a pretty hardened fan to endure that kind of thing. Others will gush over the tribute to John Lennon, “Roll On John,” which may be heartfelt, but lacks any relevance at all to the greater context, our context. Elsewhere Dylan quotes Blake, the Bible, and Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen.” What he doesn’t do is engage with any of the ideas presented in those works — great literature and western cultural history becomes a shelf of knick-knacks, not a great storehouse of conversation and ideas. And maybe that’s the point, though if it is, well, who knows.
Still elsewhere he channels Bo Diddley and plays at blues. He tells us about burying his head between the breasts of a “heavy-stacked woman.” Not really an image we need. He’s got banjo on this album, which is as much a nod to a contemporary bandwagon as his Christian conversion — his “Born Again Period” — was in the late 70s. It’s everything, and nothing, and a joke, and a bestseller all in one. I guess it will probably win awards, and his fans will parse it like the Magna Carta.
We’ll be told time and again in the coming days and weeks what a great album it is. And, again, while Dylan has done great work, it would seem that the hard part will be admitting that this isn’t it. Worse, perhaps, is that suggesting that this album is as good as anything he has created only degrades the great things — and there are many of them — that he’s done.