In 1966 I was a musically precocious 12-year-old, but met my match with Bob Dylan’s seventh album, Blonde on Blonde. I knew that he was “one of the greats” because all the older kids said so, but I didn’t really fathom what he was doing. It was all a bit abrasive, hard to pin down and with too many words.
I didn’t want to appear unhip, but I preferred to listen to the Beatles, The Stones, the Monkees and Herman’s Hermits (I was, after all, 12).
Flash forward today: Dylan’s 35th album, Tempest, gets the full-court press from the smartest critics around. From The New York Times: “He sings forcefully, in a raspy, phlegmy bark that’s not exactly melodic and by no means welcoming. Battered and unforgiving, he’s still Bob Dylan, answerable to no one but himself.”
From Paste: “Tempest is an album that works on many levels. Taken as sound or aural sculpture, the songs take the listener through a dark ramble through the back roads of American popular music. Every musical phrase, note, carries something that suggests more than itself. Each melody is weighed down with memory, reminding the listener of real and imagined pasts, old struggles, hinting that there’s a world rapidly slipping through our fingers, if it’s not already long gone.”
Some reviews, like The Atlantic, suggest that Tempest compares with his best:
“No musician of the rock and roll era has done more with sprawl than Bob Dylan. “Like a Rolling Stone” rewrote the rules of length in commercial pop music, and “Desolation Row” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” are essentially genres unto themselves. But his recent music tends toward an almost obsessive miniaturism, and Tempest is rife with intricacy. “
I don’t want to appear unhip, but this time I’d rather listen to Blonde on Blonde.
I was pretty pumped about Tempest, which was released Sept. 11. Things have changed, and I didn’t have to wait for the official release date or even leave the house to buy the album. Late evening Sept. 10 I downloaded the album from iTunes and turned it on as I went to sleep. As it is in those cases (and no reflection on Dylan) I didn’t make it past the fourth song.
It was pretty nice. The opener, “Duquesne Whistle” had a catchy bounce and the next two songs were a lot of fun in a jazz-blues kind of way. I listened in the car again on the way to work getting about halfway through, but wasn’t able to focus. I got serious in the afternoon and started from the beginning but soon got a little anxious. As the album’s centerpieces “Tempest” and “Roll On John” had generated a lot of buzz. What was promised was making it hard for me to enjoy the scenery so I skipped ahead. Because I could.
Things have changed since the time where we would reverently greet a new album with an uninterrupted listen or two, paying close attention to every nuance. Today there are so much peripheral chatter and listening options it’s hard to filter out all the noise and get to the music. This gets down to attention span, since there are so many options you can switch to something more interesting if what’s playing bores you even a little bit.
But Dylan deserves our full attention. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get Blonde on Blonde the first time out, you only gained access to its depth through repeated listenings. As for the perception that Dylan has lost his mojo with some of his later work, it could be that his genius shines as brightly but people these days aren’t willing to listen to the albums enough times to understand them.
Back to the present. I listen to seven minutes of the title track. I could follow what he was saying but wasn’t exactly sure why he was saying it. On Blonde on Blonde you didn’t know what he was saying during the first listen. On Tempest you can understand it right away but sort of wish you didn’t. I skipped again to “Roll On John” which was pretty frustrating, the words weren’t clear and the music was hard to fathom.
Things have changed since 1970, where I would have responded to an album I didn’t really like by playing it again. The failure to connect was not the artist’s fault, rather it was my inability to understand the art. This worked too many times to count, as the records I most love now didn’t take root until the tenth listen.
So I’m driving down the highway listening to “Roll On John” and it doesn’t quite gel. I will give it another chance. This is Bob Dylan, after all, and 10,000 critics can’t be wrong. But not today. Technology has allowed us to do some remarkable things, like push a few buttons and call up an album of your choice. This time I call up six consecutive Blonde on Blonde tracks, from “Visions of Johanna” to “Just Like a Woman.” The mood lifted, and I was transported back into an unprecedented world of music that still has potency and life. The voice is the biggest contrast. The Times characterizes his voice as “raspy, phlegmy bark that’s not exactly melodic” as if it were a good thing, but on Blonde and Blonde, in the mono mix, it’s clear that his voice as a greatly expressive instrument with no apologies needed.
Everything loops around. Today is just like 1966 where all the smart and popular kids are saying that Dylan’s latest is a masterpiece and I just don’t get it. Looking back years from now the public may see it on par with what is today considered to be his finest. As for my initial reaction I opted for an “it’s not you, Bob, it’s me” defense and give it a few more listens. Even so, I can’t imagine that these dark tales of death and disaster will ever evoke the same feeling as Blonde on Blonde‘s intricate portraits.
Even so, “Duquesne Whistle” stuck in my head, and a few days later I listened to the album again. And again. Some of it is still a little hard to take but I’ve kicked into the old process: Listen to something enough times and you’ll eventually get it.
That isn’t the complete truth. In the intervening time between my first and second attempts to weather the Tempest I heard a bit of trivia, how your cells turn over every seven years . This means that Dylan’s cellular makeup has changed nearly eight times since unleashing Blonde on Blonde.
The two albums weren’t made by the same guy, so one can’t be measured against the other. Which makes it OK for an early Dylan snob to really dig Tempest, sooner or later.