Bob Dylan – Dylan (1973)

Bob_Dylan_Dylan_1973_AlbumOkay, here we go: this is, according to popular opinion, the worst album Dylan ever recorded. It’s not even a proper album; rather, it’s a series of outtakes from Self Portrait, with which Dylan shares a particular vibe and aesthetic.

As the story goes, Dylan was leaving Columbia Records to join the newly-formed Asylum Records, run by David Geffen. He had a contractual obligation to put out another album with Columbia or something to that effect, so they scraped these songs from the bottom of the barrel and put it out, against Bob’s wishes. Not long after, Dylan actually came back to Columbia, and he’s been recording for them ever since.

But that’s hardly the point. The point is, are these nine songs as God awful as everyone claims? Is this, in fact, the worst album of Dylan’s long, varied career?

In a word, no. This is far from his best work, and probably not as good as the stuff on Self Portrait, but it ain’t his worst work by a long shot (hello, Knocked Out Loaded and Down in the Groove). What this collection is, is whimsical. It’s goofy. It’s a pretty fair amount of fun, too, owing to the fact that Dylan seems more relaxed here than on pretty much any other album I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard all of ’em at this point. Yeah, it’s a bunch of covers and has all the weight and substance of marshmallow fluff, but how often do we get to hear Dylan just having fun playing music? Almost never.

So, the nitty gritty. Dylan sings this in that nasally, twangy Nashville Skyline crooner voice. If you don’t like that, you’re not going to get anything out of this record. Second, the song selection is all over the place, as befits an “odds and sods” sort of collection like this. You’ve got everything from contemporary pop to traditional standards, and Dylan approaches them all with the same laid back nonchalance. There’s a certain charm to hearing him sing “Lily of the West” or “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” The arrangements are loose and open, and he’s got those female backing vocalists from Self Portrait all over the album, but it’s all pretty breezy. His take on “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” really isn’t all that worse than Johnny Cash’s, though it may lack some of the gravitas of the Man in Black’s rendition. Admittedly, Dylan’s take on “Mr. Bojangles” was something we could have all done without, but the guy straight up doesn’t seemed to have given a damn.

Ultimately, Dylan isn’t the travesty of music that it’s often made out to be. Sure, it’s not going to ever be anyone’s go-to Dylan album (as with most – if not all – of his output after John Wesley Harding and before Blood on the Tracks), but it’s hardly the worst of the bunch, even from that narrow window of late ’60s/early ’70s Dylan output (can we all agree New Morning wasn’t that great? And Planet Waves? Ugh). It’s slight and unassuming, slightly goofy and whimsical and just a little bit of fun, if you’re willing to laugh at the joke.

Top Ten Albums of 2013

I listen to a pretty fair amount of music. Not as much as when I was a young lad, back in high school or college or even graduate school, but I’ve still got my finger on the pulse of…well, not current trends in popular music, but something. I know what I like, and I usually find plenty of stuff to listen to each year.

This year, it was a little tricky to come up with ten albums that I actually really liked. There were lots of disappointments for me (hello, Arcade Fire’s Reflektor), but I still managed to find ten albums I really enjoyed.

the-national-trouble-will-find-me-608x608-136871505110. The National, Trouble Will Find Me: This album didn’t feel as strong as High Violet, and there were plenty of songs that I feel just fell flat, but the songs that are good (“I Should Live in Salt,” “Don’t Swallow the Cap,” and “I Need My Girl” all jump immediately to mind) are really, really good. And the album works really well in a live setting, I can attest. I hate to use the term, but Trouble Will Find Me is one of those albums that’s just a grower. It honestly just gets better with every listen. Even just in the few months this album has been out, I’ve already found a half dozen tracks on it that I absolutely love. In time, as with all other albums by the National, I’m sure it’ll be one of my favorites and something I put on all the time.

NEWWEST62729. Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses), The Low Highway: This album mines the same vein of Americana Steve Earle’s dug in to for the past several albums, but I’m not complaining. I mean, why fix what ain’t broke? There’s still plenty of mileage left in what he’s doing here, if you ask me. I really wish more country musicians would go this route, mining not just country but folk and other branches of American music for their inspiration (because, seriously, the dudebro country that’s so popular right now really, really needs to go away and never come back. I don’t care how many parties you’ve been to down at the ol’ swimmin’ hole; country music can have way more depth than that, dudebros).

SheAndHimVolume3Details8. She & Him, Volume 3: This album finds M. Ward and Zoey Deschannel in fine form (actually, much better form than the mediocre Volume 2 from a few years ago), and Zoey’s vocals much stronger and more interesting than last time around. The songs are by turns bright, bouncy, and bittersweet, and the duo prove there’s still plenty of good stuff in the tank. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” is one of the most infectious slices of pop songcraft I’ve heard in absolute ages, and it’s just fun to listen to, and just about every single track is jam-packed with retro-style arrangements and good, old-fashioned pop songs that you can’t help but bop along to. The world needs more fun music, if you ask me.

billiejoenorah-13848753357. Billy Joe + Norah, Foreverly: Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day and Norah Jones doing duet covers of old Everly Brothers tunes? Who thought this was a good idea? And where can I find them, so I can shake their hand and tell them they were right? Holy crap, I wouldn’t have given you ten to one odds this would’ve worked, but it totally does. The two of them have voices that meld together well, and the playing is understated but effective. These are simple songs from a bygone age (I’m not about to call it a simpler time, because that’s just stupid), and the duo give the songs a reverence, a sense of awe and beauty and wonder that you don’t get to hear all that often in contemporary music. It’s in sharp contrast to the bright bubblegum retro styling of She & Him, but coming from a similar love of the classics.

81MlMGCPEwL._SL1500_6. Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, The More I Love You: As Neko Case becomes harder and harder to classify musically, the more I find myself enjoying her work. Sure, there’s something to be said for those early hard-driving alt-country albums, but her last three records have become increasingly impossible to pin down, and she seems to revel in the violation of genre conventions. And damn, can that woman sing. “Man” is a fast-paced, exciting song that I find dangerous to drive to (unless you’re okay with doing 90 mph down the highway), while other tracks like “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” are slower, more-thoughtful ruminations on filial relations and how those can really screw us up. Like, really screw us up.

The-Flaming-Lips-THE-TERROR-1024x10245. The Flaming Lips, The Terror: This album lives up to its title. Full of jittery, nervous tunes, a dark sense of foreboding, and lyrics that are something like the sinister flipside to Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, The Terror leaves you feeling ill at ease. But it’s also a damn good set of songs, which is to be expected from a group that’s been going for about thirty years and shows no sign of slowing down or settling into a rut. While I didn’t enjoy this album as much as Yoshimi or At War With the Mystics, it’s still a solid offering, and one that I’m likely to return to somewhere down the line, when I’m more comfortable with getting creeped out and unnerved by music. It, um, might be awhile, though.

b4b022387dd2106b3d93a5485957a599_large4. Toad the Wet Sprocket, New Constellation: Holy cow, a Toad the Wet Sprocket album? Is it the ’90s again? I wouldn’t have thought this would happen, but they did a Kickstarter campaign and funded their first new album in 16 years. What’s interesting is that they managed to sound like Toad without sounding like they were frozen in carbonite back in the late ’90s. Instead, they sound like they kept playing in those intervening years and kept growing and developing as a band, and this is the record they happened to put out. It’s pretty great. There are lots of achingly beautiful songs, Glen Phillips sounds just as good as he ever did, and the band sound like they never broke up. It’s really everything you could possibly want out of a Toad the Wet Sprocket album in 2013.

Paul-McCartney-NEW-Deluxe-Edition3. Paul McCartney, NEW: Seriously, is this just the year of guys you thought were done doing anything interesting surprising you? ‘Cause I wouldn’t have thought a latter-day McCartney album would be anything to write home about. Sure, some of his stuff in the past decade and a half has been good (I loved Run Devil Run, and Flaming Pie certainly had its moments, but Memory Almost Full? Driving Rain? Ugh), but to come across a McCartney album this good, this vital, this current, in 2013? If you’d told me about it ten years ago, I’d’ve called you a liar. And then asked you how you’d managed to time travel to 2003. But you get the point: the album’s title isn’t just laziness, it’s a declaration of artistic relevance as McCartney settles into his 70s. There are musicians out there in their 20s who aren’t being as creative as this guy is right now, and that’s damned impressive. McCartney always seemed to rely more on craft than anything else, but this album shows he’s willing to learn some new tricks and move with the times a bit, all while remaining resolutely Paul McCartney.

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F2. Josh Ritter, The Beast in its Tracks: I wasn’t so fond of So Runs the World Away when it came out. I thought it was overproduced and a little too thick with layered instrumentation. This album feels like a direct response to such criticism. It’s much more stripped-down, with a greater focus on guitar rather than piano, and a bunch of songs that apparently detail the collapse of Ritter’s marriage. None of that matters, though, because it’s probably his best overall set of songs in years, with its fair share of wit, warmth, sadness, and cleverness, all wrapped up in arrangements that aren’t too busy or too fussy. It’s exactly what I want out of a Josh Ritter album.

Unknown1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series, Volume 10: Another Self Portrait: What do you get when you put together a few dozen outtakes and alternate versions of songs from one of Dylan’s most controversial (even reviled) albums? Um, a great freakin’ collection, that’s what. While Self Portrait is overwrought and undercooked, possibly purposefully so, this collection reveals the bones of the work, often just Dylan with a guitar, and it’s a fascinating look at what he was trying to accomplish in the early ’70s. That the collection also contains tracks from what became New Morning (a much better-received album that Self Portrait, though really of a kind with it in many ways) and some live stuff with the Band only makes this one of the best things I’ve heard all year.

#627 – Bob Dylan’s Beard

20130829-000643.jpg

I grabbed the deluxe edition of Bob Dylan’s Another Self Portrait, the latest in the Bootleg Series of previously-unreleased material from across his career. As the comic points out, this particular collection covers everything from 1967 (the year of John Wesley Harding) to 1972 (the year before Dylan did the soundtrack to Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid). It’s an interesting collection, covering (as the title suggests) a bunch of stuff from one of Dylan’s most challenging albums, Self Portrait. The usually more stripped-down arrangements of the alternative versions presented here make for a unique listening experience, one much more in line with the sound Dylan had toyed with on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline.

And that’s your daily dose of Dylan data.

Fabricating Authenticity, or Faking It

I’ve been reading a book about Elliott Smith’s XO, one of my favorite albums ever, and the author spends a good deal of time discussing what makes an artist authentic.

Authenticity is a complex, strange idea. The author, Matthew LeMay, argues that Smith’s use of drug imagery and tales of depression and self-doubt are not exactly autobiographical, or at least not intended to be taken that way. Just because Smith himself had a history of drug use, LeMay says, does not mean the songs that make drug references are about him. But we assume they are, because cultural authorities have pegged Smith as the “drugged-up singer/songwriter” type.

Part of the reason for that, LeMay posits, is that listeners want to believe that Elliott Smith’s songs are somehow more “authentic” than someone else’s, that he has authenticity because he’s writing about things he himself has experienced. It raises the question, though: if Smith’s songs were not purely autobiographical (and LaMay makes a fairly compelling argument for why they’re not), are they somehow less authentic?

What even makes a song (or a musician) authentic? What makes a Bob Dylan song more authentic than, say, a Lady Gaga song? There are few who would argue Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown,” for instance, is less authentic than Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” But what makes that the case? The very act of creating a song, of putting emotional and mental concepts into a formal structure, of setting it to a melody, is inauthentic: there is nothing “real” about singing about your feelings rather than, say, any other form of expression. Expression itself is an artificial construct, an effort to put into words or pictures or sound or whatever something that cannot be truly defined. The act of attempting to contain a concept as big as “love” or “addition” in any sort of expressive form is to put the concept in a box, but the box can never fully contain the entirety of the concept.

So, why then do we consider some musicians more authentic than others? Why does an Elliott Smith or a Bob Dylan come across as more authentic than a Lady Gaga or a Celine Dione? Does it have to do with the nature of their music, with Smith and Dylan writing songs that are more direct and often more literary than their poppier counterparts? Is it that they often write the songs themselves? Or that singers like Dione and Lady Gaga have an army of producers and engineers crafting their music, whereas a guy like Elliott Smith did it almost entirely by himself?

It’s difficult to say. I think it has a lot to do with verisimilitude. An Elliott Smith song feels real, feels lived in, and that lends it its air of authenticity. The songs feel believable, whereas Celine Dione’s “I Will Always Love You” just feels like it’s all soaring high notes and doesn’t necessarily carry the same weight of truth to it (or truthiness, even). Promising to always love some unnamed figure up on a pedestal feels artificial to us, even if you happen to love the song, while a stark ballad like Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” feels very human. It seems like something that could happen, and that is what gives the song the authenticity.

All music is artifice. When I was younger, I dismissed music from the ’80s as being “style over substance,” and felt pretty smug in my assessment. While I still don’t particularly care for ’80s music today, I can see how false the dichotomy I’d created was: there’s no song that hasn’t taken style into consideration, even if the decision is a lo-fi Mountain Goats “single voice and guitar recorded straight into a boombox” style. “Substance” is a pretty ephemeral thing, really, and it’s absolutely possible to craft a catchy, poppy song that has tremendous substance.

Ultimately, authenticity is a tricky concept. I think a lot of it has to do with how an artist carries his or herself. While a guy like Elliott Smith was always very concerned with the style of his songs and their arrangement, his meticulous approach to the sound and the lyrics carried a great deal of conceptual weight that granted him an air of authenticity, even when standing onstage next to Celine Dione at the Oscars. But authenticity isn’t about being a confessional singer/songwriter, it’s about holding true to your inner self, writing and performing what you want to, the way you want to, regardless of its style or substance.

Top Ten Albums of 2012

As the end of the year draws nigh, I, like so many other self-important know-it-alls, stoop to bequeath you, the audience, with my illuminating and elucidating best-of list for the year 2012. First, the also-rans.

Honorable Mentions

1. The Gaslight Anthem, Handwritten: Back when I first reviewed the album, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, and that hasn’t really changed. Not bad, but not up to the level of expectations I had after the one-two punch of The 59 Sound and American Slang.

2. Calexico, Algeria: A good album, but it didn’t really do much to grab my attention or work in a vein outside of what this band’s been doing for awhile now.

3. Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill: It’s classic-sounding Neil Young & Crazy Horse. If that’s something you don’t feel you have enough of in your life, it’ll definitely fill that hole, but it doesn’t do anything we haven’t heard from these guys over the past about 40 years.

4. JD McPherson, Signs and Signifiers: Okie musician doing ’50s rockabilly/R&B/swing. Good stuff, even if it feels a little too pastiche-y.

5. Divine Fits, A Thing Called Divine Fits: Britt Daniel could’ve just done another Spoon album. No one would’ve been able to tell the difference.

And now, on to the main event!

10. The Avett Brothers, The Carpenter: A much stronger effort than their previous, I and Love and You, with better songs and fewer fussy details. There don’t seem to be as many harmonies, though, which I find sad, and this particular record still fall short of their best effort (Emotionalism, for those keeping score at home).

9. First Aid Kit, The Lion’s Roar: Scandanavian (barely out of their?) teens doing Americana and doing it right? Yes, please. “Emmylou” is gorgeous and heartfelt, and the title track is just one of the best damn songs I’ve heard all year.

8. Of Monsters and Men, My Head is an Animal: “Little Talks” has been stuck in my head since sometime last year, and it hasn’t gone away. The rest of the album may not be quite as good, but it’s still pretty damn good. Plus, the lead guy in the band is a chubby man with a beard, which gives me hope of one day being a rock star myself.

7. Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil: The album crowdsourced funding made possible, this ode to everything ’80s is pretty damn catchy. Palmer sounds like she’s having fun fronting a full band, and the GTO rise to the occasion. I do rather miss the old Dresden Dolls days, though.

6. Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue, Volume 3: A bit of a cheat, as this is sort of a “leftovers from the first two volumes” deal with less-developed songs from the Woody Guthrie lyrics with Bragg and Wilco tunes collections. There are still some great songs here, though, especially in Wilco’s offerings (“When the Roses Bloom Again” and “The Jolly Banker” are two of the best songs to come out of the Mermaid Avenue project, if you ask me).

5. AC Newman, Shut Down the Streets: A rather more somber album than we’ve come to expect from the power-pop wunderkind, but a compelling set nonetheless. It’s not anything particularly different from what he’s done on previous albums, but why fix what ain’t broken?

4. Bob Dylan, Tempest: I know, I know, a Bob Dylan album only ranking 4th for the year? Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse. But Tempest just didn’t really do enough new that I felt it deserved a higher spot. It’s good and all, but it didn’t really wow me. The best I can say about it is that it’s new Dylan songs, and they’re pretty good, but they’re nothing we haven’t really heard before.

3. John Fullbright, From the Ground Up: Another Okie, this one a widely-proclaimed “next Dylan.” Or maybe a “next Woody Guthrie,” as Guthrie is an obvious touchstone for the young man’s work (they’re both from the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Okemah, where my own father grew up and I spent many childhood summers). As I mentioned back when this album came out, it sounds exactly like what I thought Fullbright would sound like with a full band, and that was a good thing indeed. The good songs on here are great, and the songs I didn’t care for were still pretty good, just not to my taste.

2. The Wallflowers, Glad All Over: A surprisingly fantastic album from the younger Dylan and his crack team of cohorts. Glad All Over featured several of my favorite songs all year, the best of which was “Misfits and Lovers.” It’s got a bit of the Clash to it, and there’s a nice change in the style from the Wallflowers’ earlier sound while maintaining some continuity. Good stuff.

1. Andrew Bird, Break It Yourself and Hands of Glory: Yeah, they’re two separate releases, and they really don’t share a theme or sound or anything, but they’re both fantastic and this is my list and shut up. Break it Yourself continues Bird’s streak of creating brainy, esoteric chamber pop that incorporates all sorts of different styles and sounds. His use of the violin becomes less and less about traditional playing and more about seeing what sorts of interesting sounds you can get out of the instrument. Hands of Glory feels like a spare, country companion to the world music-esque Break it Yourself. “Three White Horses” is probably my favorite song of the year. The changing tempos and shifting dynamics make it an inventive, enjoyable song.

Those were the ones I dug this year. What grabbed your interest?

Hard-Boiled: The Playlist

When I’m doing most of the things I do, such as writing, I tend to also listen to music. Music’s always been pretty important for me, and I find it difficult to concentrate when I’m doing certain tasks without music. TV just doesn’t cut it: I get too distracted, want to watch what’s going on.

With that in mind, here’s a playlist I put together a week or two ago to write my novel to. The songs have absolutely nothing to do with the actual novel or its themes or anything, just a loose collection of songs I’m enjoying at the moment.

1. The Cranberries, “Linger”: Who doesn’t love ’90s Lilith Fair fare?

2. Bob Dylan, “Paths of Victory”: This piano-based tune feels as much like a Woody Guthrie tune as anything Dylan ever wrote.

3. Paul McCartney, “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”: I myself have brown eyes and am a man. Draw your own conclusions.

4. Willie Nelson, “City of New Orleans”: Who doesn’t love train songs, especially from the point of view of the train?

5. Andrew Bird, “Three White Horses”: One of the best songs off the recent Hands of Glory EP, this is just a fantastic tune in a style rather different from Bird’s usual sound.

6. Woody Guthrie, “Dust Pneumonia Blues”: I just watched Ken Burns’s Dust Bowl documentary last week, and the use of Woody Guthrie songs in that got me in a Woody mood.

7. Lodger, “The Good Old Days”: Classicist Brit-pop? Yes, please.

8. Mark Knopfler, “Don’t Crash the Ambulance”: Humorous song about the passing of the torch of the presidency to the next guy? With Mark Knopfler’s baritone drawl and beautiful Strat fills? What’s not to like here?

9. Allison Krauss & Union Station, “Restless”: I feel this way when I write sometimes, so it seemed appropriate.

10. The Temptations, “Papa was a Rolling Stone”: I think it’s that saxophone part that does it for me.

11. Panic! At the Disco, “Nine in the Afternoon”: Don’t you dare judge me.

12. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “It’ll All Work Out”: I love the mandolin in this one. It’s one of the prettier Heartbreakers tunes.

13. Calexico, “Ocean of Noise”: Calexico putting their indie-mariachi spin on one of the best songs from Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. Brilliant.

14. Miles Davis, “It Never Entered My Mind”: My favorite Miles Davis song, from the criminally-underrated Workin’ album. Just absolutely amazing stuff.

Bob Dylan and the Band – Before the Flood

Here’s another old album review from the dark, dark ages of 2004.

Before the Flood is a collection of cuts from a 1974 tour that Bob Dylan and the Band–both coming off mediocre albums–put on to recapture their audience’s attention. And damn did it ever work.

The Dylan cuts here seem as if they were performed by a man and a band possessed. He tears through familiar tunes in new arrangements and new settings, completely altering familiar songs until they were barely recognizable. And the songs that were recognizable were still so different and alien, the audience barely knew how to react.

That being said, the reinterpretations are phenomenal. Dylan has always made an effort to defy his audience’s expectations, and by the mid-’70s, they’d finally come to appreciate this fact and to embrace it. The roar of the crowd on the double album makes it clear that Dylan’s fans still love him and his music, however he may twist it and change it.

The Band’s tunes, which mostly appear in the middle of the set, are a brief respite from the storm. There are no surprises here–The Band play things pretty straight, giving close reads of some of their best-known tunes, including “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” and “Stage Fright” on disc one, and “The Weight” on disc two. This straight-forward work by The Band on their original tunes actually works to the album’s advantage, though, as it provides a baseline against which to compare and interpret Dylan’s radical reworkings.

Dylan’s song selection stuck mostly to older, more established tunes from his first six or seven albums. Tunes such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Lay Lady Lay,” “Blowing in the Wind” (the album’s closer, in a very different version from the original solo acoustic), and numerous others seemed obvious and well-loved choices, but some of the tunes Dylan played were outside of expectations. Including “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Highway 61 Revisited” from Highway 61 Revisited, and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (played by Dylan solo acoustic at a breakneck speed) kept things even more varied and unpredictable.

Before the Flood captures Dylan and The Band at a performance ability peak, and presents them as a force of nature that tore through songs, the audience, and expectations. The results are phenomenal and worth listening to, and the album rivals any of the recent excellent Bootleg Series live shows. The record is a must-have for anyone who values the work of Dylan or The Band.

Bob Dylan – Tempest

I am, as even a cursory glance at this blog will readily prove, a pretty damn big Dylan fan. And when I heard he was putting out another album, I was – as is to be expected – pretty damn excited. And honestly, the album is pretty great. It’s got some solid songs on it, Dylan’s voice is in fine (albeit raspy, gravely) form, and I enjoyed it from beginning until almost the end. But…

Well, it doesn’t honestly grab me, y’know? Usually, with a Dylan album, I want to start it over again right after it finishes. That…didn’t happen here. This is an excellent album, but it’s an album I feel like I’ve already heard three times before.

Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of great stuff to be mined from the styles Dylan’s been working in since Love and Theft (still my favorite Dylan record of the past thirty years), but it feels like the always-restless Dylan is just spinning his wheels here. Dylan and his band still do their thing with skill and even finesse, but there’s nothing here he hasn’t already done before. There are no surprises, no sudden detours in an unexpected direction (either lyrically or sonically), and honestly, it’s just not what I was hoping for.

The positive side, though, is that if you haven’t heard anything by Dylan in the past ten or twelve years, this album will feel pretty fresh to you. And really, the songs are generally quite good. Things start off well with “Duquesne Whistle,” an old-fashioned train song done in an old fashioned style. The subtle steel guitar work is reminiscent of Hank Williams, Sr., which is never a bad thing. “Early Roman Kings” borrows the riff from “Mannish Boy,” but does it on accordion (which isn’t a surprise at all if you’ve heard Together Through Life, but it fits as though there’s never been any other way to play it). “Pay In Blood” is one of Dylan’s darker comic songs, featuring the recurring line “I’ve paid in blood, but it’s not my own.” Other songs, such as “Soon After Midnight” and “Narrow Way,” work very well, and the first half of the album is pretty fantastic.

The second half, though, is bogged down by the last two tracks: the sprawling, lethargic title track, a story song about the sinking of the Titanic that does nothing new or interesting with the topic, and the album’s closer, “Roll on John,” a tribute to John Lennon that borrows lyrics from several of Lennon’s own songs and feels about thirty years too late. They’re both duds, falling quite flat, and they bring the end of the record down considerably.

Ultimately, Tempest isn’t going to win any new converts to the Cult of Dylan. It’s good, but there’s really nothing to distinguish it from the three albums that came before. While I can’t fault Dylan for pursuing the styles and themes he wants to (it’s led to same damn fine music over the years), I’m starting to have a tough time following him down the path.