Hell is Open and All the Devils are Here – 3

by elmergantry

This represents my attempt to give a considered judgement on ‘Tempest’..

To do this requires a brief historical introduction, I think.

As Bob himself has admiited in Chronicles, he went through a severe creative slump which ran, say, from the early to late 1980s. This was succeeded by a revival of sorts which saw him release two fine, if rather low-key albums, in 89 and 90 (‘Oh Mercy‘ and ‘Under the Red Sky‘).

Then Dylan made the two albums of folk covers, which – to my mind – were vital to his recovering his creative spark. Making them, Bob re-engaged with what had drawn him into music in the first place…

This paved the way for what I would regard as his last masterpiece, Time Out of Mind. Time Out of Mind had that coherence of mood and vision which all truly great albums share (like say, Astral Weeks by Morrison, Marjory Razorblades by Kevin Coyne or Pink Moon by Nick Drake.).

While I thought ‘Love and Theft’ was a fine album (with a number of great songs) I thought it lacked that coherence…

After Love & Theft, however, Dylan’s albums became even more ‘grab-bag’. There was also an increased reliance on unacknowledged borrowings from other people’s work. And, whereas in the past, Dylan had transformed his source material into completely new works of art (for example, ‘Hard Rain’ sounds very little like ‘Lord Randal’ in its finished form: ‘Chimes of Freedom’ may be modelled partly on ‘Trinity Bells’ but is a infinitely superior and very different song to it, and even ‘Blowing in the wind’ does not really resemble ‘Auction block’ to that great a degree), nowadays Dylan’s borrowings added very little to their sources & were, more often than not, markedly inferior to them.

In terms of his lyrics, it seemms to me that Dylan was again suffering from a form of writer’s block. To cover that, he was now using a form of re-arranging lines drawn from old blues and folk songs and 19th century American poetry, often with little regard to any kind of structural coherence or, indeed, any form of real meaning at all…

‘Tempest’ seemed to me to mark a high-point in this process – combining these kind of careless, often sloppy lyrics, with leaden arrangements makes it, I think, easily the worst album Dylan has ever made…

I set out wanting to like the album, but I was put off – not so much its mediocrity (every artist is entitled to an off day) but by the the air of meanspiritedness and artistic dishonesty that hangs over it…

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