Bob Dylan has a new album, Tempest, an event that would normally not interest me so much had it not been for the large portions of praise the songs and performances have drawn from smart rock and pop critics. There are some pioneers, some esteemed geniuses that a generation of record reviewers (and a generation of critics after them) don't want to let go of, let alone admit that the later work isn't as interesting as the material that drew you to the artist, to begin with. There is a problem with reaching one's zenith so early, in that everything you do afterward is compared with the singular work you'd done years before. It's not fair to the particular artist, whether great or mediocre.
For Dylan, though, the generally solid reviews that he receives for his stream of albums seems an irrational response from someone who hasn't demonstrated more than the capacity to be mysterious and inscrutable. Mystery and inscrutability are qualities that in themselves that do not make for something that will turn my head ahead and cause me to cogitate beyond reasonable length when the disc is done playing. I don't know what the fuss is all about other than it seems to be a recurring outbreak of Everything- Dylan -Does-is -Genius fever. Musically it is solid, well produced, and the musicians have a disciplined grittiness that has more polish than the cluttered and slapdash quality of much of Dylan's recent work and yet avoids sounding slick and corporate. It is obvious that sometimes was spent over the soundboard adjusting the mix. The pity is that Dylan is far from his best form here; for all his striving to write with an idiomatic tone his bucolic phrase making has nearly always seemed practiced, rehearsed too much in a mirror. What is obvious to me is that Dylan continues to traffic in cliches; he is, as Lester Bangs remarked, selling off what is left of his charisma with under-constructed songs and ideas.
Much of the lyrics for this album seem like a parody of an aging musician long past his brilliant work doubling down on bad version of himself; there is an art to sounding as though your lyrics are from a vernacular, but the magic happens when the listener, the witness, forgets the contrivances and believes, for a moment at least, that the voices are from an era and place forgotten . This is what Robbie Robertson did with the Band; lyrics giving elliptical tales a plain-speaking, direct address from within the narrative line, not from without. There is something genuinely conversational and intimate in the best of the Band's rustic workings, no large message or grotesque rumbles of philosophical swell. Life is too short and interesting to try to make sense of it and the characters Robertson and his bandmates are rather too busy telling everyone what just happened, what happened before, what things were like before any catastrophe, cataclysmic event or history altering debacle made the tides rise and the price of gas to go up.
The reviews have been absurdly positive while the music is merely passable. The lyrics, though, are what's truly abysmal. Smart pop music critics, especially younger ones eager to reinforce the conceit that Dylan is untouchable, have tripped over themselves to praise "Tempest" when in point of fact what Dylan does with this disc is resort to the cliches, tired tropes, and convenient moralism that he proved in the sixties could be abandoned altogether. Once or twice, as in an effort like "Self Portrait", you could argue that the songwriter was being supremely ironic, daring his followers to find sage advice, worth and significance in the banality that album is marked by. Forty years worth of raiding the Prison House of Chestnut Schematics, though, indicates not irony but a bad habit. Some writers are brilliant in their old age, managing a new style to meet their tested experience; Dylan is only vague and pedestrian in his narratives, without a quotable line for the effort.
"They battened down the hatches
But the hatches wouldn't holdThey drowned upon the staircaseOf brass and polished gold. "
The fact that Dylan cannot seem to write anything that does not included hoary prophecies that are more smoke than thunder , nor stay away from convenient phrases that seem more author notes in a screenplay-in-progress, late Dylan is only another workman in the field, dutiful but not brilliant. Dylan wants to write parables of indefinite place and time, but his linguistic invention, his ability to mash up idioms from folk traditions, hip argot and Modernist poetry--TS Eliot, prime period Allan Ginsberg, RImbaud--is gone; as with Norman Mailer's famously baroque prose style constructed in the 3rd person, I think his ear for that kind of writing has gone deaf. Unlike Mailer, Dylan did not create, for the most part, a compelling replacement. He is a shadow of what he was and stalwart fans pay him a fortune to be precisely that, a stick figure reminder of their youth, not an aging artist who has managed to remain interesting on the merits of his later work.
Dylan, I think, is a class of artist who had an enormous, galvanizing, revolutionizing style for a period of his career, years in which he released an impressive series of albums, from Another Side of Bob Dylan up to Blood on the Tracks, that is one of those bodies of work that are untouchable works of genius . Fitting perfectly well within his interesting notion of the Anxiety of Influence, Dylan's songs and lyrics in that period so profoundly changed the nature of what popular songwriting can be that all songwriters, regardless of style, write in the shadow of that genius.
Younger writers can write further into the direction they believe Dylan was headed, taking further risks, bigger chances, or they can go in the other extreme, writing away from the pull of Dylan's gravity, writing in a way no less risky and perplexing as those who become Dylan apostles. Dylan's case, within that of songwriting, is comparable to that of Shakespeare's, an influence so vast that no artist, even those who intensely dislike the work, can ignore the artist; lesser writers, "weaker" writers as Bloom would put, cannot help but be influenced by the profundity of the work that has gone before. Like it or not, it is a standard that compels you to make a stylistic choice. Genius, though, is fleeting, and Dylan's ability as such was that it came out of him in a flow that was, I believe, effortless,nearly savant-like, requiring less craft than a brain that was firing on all cylinders and producing a language that seemed to compose itself. But genius leaves a good many of our great artists--it is a spirit, perhaps, that takes residence in a person's personality long enough to get the work done and then leaves, sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually.
Other things come into play as well, such as a change in why one engages in the kind of self-interrogation that writing essentially is; Mailer dropped his high style, my favorite style when he came across the Gary Gilmore story and wrote in simpler terms as his fiction become more nuanced and rich. This is was a plus. Allen Ginsberg became a Buddhist and fell in love with the notion of "first thought, best thought" and essentially transcribed his continuous notes to himself, unedited, unmediated by literary qualification, in the effort to present a truer, constantly evolving face to the public in his books of poetry. Much as I like the reasoning and dedication, AG's poetry became far, far less exciting, interesting, became far less good. For Dylan, after his motorcycle accident, he has taken up with simpler more vernacular language, and we see the good it offered he and the listener, with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. The language was simpler, and the sources from which Dylan took his inspiration, folk tales, old songs, country western bathos, navigated closely to the banal and hackneyed, but we must admit that Dylan had the skill, the instinct, to manage his language no less artfully than Hemingway would have done at his prime and kept matters enticingly elliptical at the heart of things: there are ways to create a sense of what you're getting at without too much artifice and pretension, useless . He was masterful in creating simpler lyrics that still drew you in and still kept you making intelligent guesses.
Like Hemingway, this virtue wouldn't last, in my view; Hemingway fell prey to depression and concerns of his virility and sought to write his way out of his depression, the result is a series of late-career books that lack the grace or conviction or the brilliance of insinuation of his great work; he veered toward self-parody. Dylan's work, post Blood on the Track, became alarmingly prolix and parochial in ideas and a contrived rural diction that sounds completely false, the phoniest I've heard since the quaint southern tales of Erskine Caldwell.
I know that Dylan has always trafficked in clichés, but what he did previously with stale phrases was to subvert them, place them in unexpected juxtapositions, and cleverly invert their meanings to expose their shortcomings. He is not doing that these days--rather I think the good man just starts writing something without an inherent sense of where to go or when to stop or where to edit and seems to write in an attempt to maintain equilibrium. He seems to need to hear himself write; it is more the process than the result that matters. His use of clichés or banal phrases seems more stitchery than rehabilitating the language; they are means that he can connect his stanzas, do patchwork on an incomplete idea.
Dylan wears his age as if it allows him to say what he wants because he has wrinkles you can hide your money in-- he stands apart, saging about, the voice that is too busy documenting feats and folly: it fits neatly into the covert self-mythologizing Dylan has turned into his secondary art. His principle art, his music, and his lyrics are what Andy Warhol foretold decades ago--art is anything he can get away with. What I hear, though, is a slovenly , lazy, uninteresting filter of the creaky, eyebrow-raising cliches and obvious transitions ; there are no amazing associational leaps of fancy here, no "Desolation Row", no "Memphis Blues Again", nothing as truly brilliant as the succinct parables in "John Wesley Harding"; the man who gets the credit and the blame for expanding the pop lyricist vocabulary is now involved in convincing his audience that the contrived, the hackneyed, the severely corny and portentous are, in his hands, masterful reworkings and reinventions of old forms. I think it more apt to say that he makes me think of a bankrupt interior designer who is constantly rearranging the same old broken, tattered, torn furniture in a wan hope that few will notice how tacky the whole thing actually is.