The hero worship of Dylan continues unabated . The poor man is more Living Legend than Artist, who sense of imagery these last few decades has been more a storehouse of tacky stage props than anything quotable, witty or head turning. A generation of critics remains too close to Dylan to give him the rigorous estimation they would an actual poet; John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara receive franker reviews. Even Billy Collins, beloved by millions , gets the occasional Bronx Cheer from reviewers who regard him as a perennial lightweight. Dylan is a songwriter, not a theologian, nor a moral philosopher. He was once a brilliant songwriter and a lyricist with originality and power. That moment is a long time ago. His writing in the last four decades don't come near the genius had once. There is something to be said about an artist's late work in that one can connect a number of themes that have morphed and changed due to age and gathered experience, but Dylan is , again, a songwriter, not a poet, not a novelist, not a playwright, and his writing has been reliably hackneyed and cornball for decades. Still , his new album Tempest is getting the best reviews he’s received from critics in years. I don't know what the fuss is all about other than it seems to be a recurring outbreak of Everything Dylan 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 sometime was spent over the sound board adjusting the mix. The pity is that Dylan is far from his best form here; for all his strivings to write with an idiomatic tone his buccolic phrase making has nearly always seemed practiced, rehearsed too much in a mirror.
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 forgetton . This is what Robbie Robertson did with the Band; lyrics giving elipitical 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 goiteresque rumbles of philosophical swell. Life is too short and interesting to try to makes sense of it and the characters Robertson and his band mates 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.
Dylan wears his age as if it allows him to say what he wants because he has wrinkles you can hid 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 fortold 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 portentious 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.