Sunday, September 16, 2012

His Back Pages

Bob Dylan has long been a man with a noted interest on the topics of life and mortality, the inescapable pain of lost love and the inevitability of life ending. Now, he's embracing these things.

The 71-year-old Dylan released (what I believe to be) his 35th studio album last Tuesday, entitled Tempest. It comes just over a half-century since his eponymous debut in March of 1962, still touching on those similar themes of life and death and the true value of what occurs between them, only now with a much more contented air of acceptance. As Eric Forman of That '70s Show once said: “You know, life is like a train. It's bearing down on you, and guess what? It's gonna hit you. So you can either start running when it's far off in the distance, or you can pull up a chair, crack open a beer and just watch it come.” Bob Dylan has transitioned to the full, more eloquent embodiment of the latter half of that dilemma. Although as Tempest makes quite obvious, the train still has some ground to cover.

The album is widely being claimed as Dylan's darkest and most sinister thus far (more ominous than the gloom and sorrow of Blood on the Tracks, less contemplative and more brash than Time Out of Mind), and yet it still manages to retain a wry, crooked smirk through all 10 tracks, almost reveling in the darkness. “Tin Angel” weaves yet another of Dylan's notorious and melodic yarns, this one about love and betrayal and murder. “Narrow Way” touches on lust and carnal desires, “Long and Wasted Years” on the magnetic yet ultimately fleeting powers of companionship (“So much for tears / So much for these long and wasted years”). The title track spends 14 minutes on the fate of the Titanic, while the culminating song laments John Lennon's death, though one can almost imagine Dylan singing it for himself when his time comes. He remains the same masterful Dylan that he always was (even more so in relation to his past few albums), with just enough mystery and aloofness hanging around to in any way nail him down. Never has there been a person held in such reverence, but of which so little is truly grasped. He is simultaneously renowned man and unattainable myth.

Though it takes a bit longer to appreciate, time has been just as kind to Dylan's voice as it has to his songwriting prowess. Never known for his pitch-perfect crooning, Dylan has always been praised more for how his singing fits his overall sound and persona — the nasally delivery meshing with his folksy constructions; the haunting spitfire of his protestations; the reserved, easy flow of his sardonic tracks; the pressing nature of his electric compilations. Age and repetition have relegated his current vocals to some combination of an angel and garbage disposal, his gravelly growl peppered with the beauty of soul and wisdom, the perfect pairing for an album such as this. The voice is striking and slightly off-putting the first moment you hear it, before gradually rollicking so seamlessly with the music that any deviation would only cause those initial, now-forgotten moments of brow-furrowing to return.

But the man's voice and enigmatic traits are merely evidence of how he has continually redefined himself as an artist countless times over the course of his life: from folk to electric to country to Americana, constantly bouncing back and forth between them and blending them together. For better or worse (and it's often been for better), no Dylan album sounds quite the same. Even the legendary stretch of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were all distinct masterpieces in their own ways. His steadfast greatness has long been sparked by his reinventions; his unchanging brilliance owed as much to his lyrical artistry as it is to his fearless hatred for complacency.

Though ultimately, it is not his singing or songwriting that deem him so intriguing, but rather the response to it. What makes Dylan special is how strange it is to think of his career in terms of something as trivial as that of a musician. It even feels weird to discuss Dylan in terms of having a “career” at all, as it seemingly devalues his life's achievements in some way. It's odd to think of his “profession” providing for himself and his family and making him rich beyond our wildest dreams, because we so often focus instead on how important and revered he is in the zeitgeist of our culture and individual lives. We refer to him as an artist because singer/songwriter seems too superfluous; we idolize him as a deity because “musician” doesn't pay him enough respect.

Maybe that's why Tempest is so dark in tone. Maybe it's so obsessed with death because its effects on Dylan will prove to be meaningless. Maybe he's embraced mortality because the concept feels so foreign to him. All that he's accomplished and the impact he's had on so many will allow him to live forever. The number of breaths that remain in his lungs will not determine whether he lives or dies.

In 1965, Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Despite being somewhat depressing, this sentiment is true. In 2012, Dylan sang “The more I die, the more I live.” For him, this sentiment is also true.

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