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Notes From the Trail of Tears Commute /
Tempest

by Kevin Harvey


I have to be honest here:  The critical reaction to Bob's work since TOOM mystifies me.   The stuff really isn't that good and he often sounds truly awful....and yet the reviews are consistently positive, if not raves.  I have to think this through.  It's too late to stop now.  What's at least as troubling as his shattered voice, if not more so, is the lack of lyrical magic.  The songs themselves are dull, the occasional startling couplet followed by lines that sound pulled from the air, as if they merely floated to the surface  like scraps of wood in a river.   So let me go back:  I stopped playing "Time Out of Mind" a long time ago; it's as if the disc turns its back on me when I go to the shelf.  "Love and Theft" is a water clogged bore; Mississippi being the only track that retains its original appeal.  "Modern Times" is a slight improvement, but wore out quickly.  "Together Through Life" felt dashed off, indifferent. 
It's All Good? Really? The Christmas disc, at best a surreal joke, sounded like it had been performed and recorded at a  homeless shelter by a group of dying vets. (A friend's young daughter would lock herself in the bathroom crying whenever her dad put it on;  Dylan's insistence that he'd be home for Christmas terrifying the poor kid.)  And now: TEMPEST.  The first tracks and video were not promising.  Early Roman Kings didn't make much sense and we never went to Bob Dylan to hear his work playing over clips of the military doing anything, anywhere.  Duquesne Whistle sounded fair, faux-jaunty, and Robert Hunter pot-lazy. Ok.  And it seemed to improve each time one played it.  But what was that video with the guy getting his kneecaps broken while a nasty looking BOB led the Gene Simmon's Killers on night patrol? But the disc was here at last and ready for the Trail of Tears Commute.

The cover is the worst since "Shot of Love," but, so what, it sounds  good, his voice up front, stronger than the last four discs! And the music moves!   There is a flow to this one, the lyrics coming together with an inner logic.  The nastiness and anger felt earned, lived in.  Bob wasn't Bedhead Eastwood singing to an invisible audience after all.  He was in my face with this one-  yet another side of Bob Dylan- and I was stunned.  And then came Tin Angel, a song so strange and wonderful  that it might have been on John  Wesley Harding or Desire, sung and recorded to perfection. If only he'd record himself like this all the time: mute the band to the vanishing point and breath into the microphone.  (McCartney does something similar on the underrated "Kisses on the Bottom," but that's another note from the trail.) Tin Angel brings it all back for me: everything I loved about the singer and his work that has been missing for so long.  And yet I don't really know what Tin Angel is about, but I'm happy to say that I might never work my way through it.  And that may finally be it: the other work, the stuff that died for me, was too easily absorbed and understood.  I never came to Bob for things I already knew; I came to hear things that only he could tell me.   I suspect that is true of all artists, but most especially for Mr. Dylan.  Tempest, the song itself is better than many a reviewer seems to think, close to his long Civil War tune that I found to be at least semi-wonderful.   Following it with the album closer eulogy to John Lennon, a heartfelt but uneven song with some truly bad lines, doesn't really harm the album: it just clarifies Dylan's position as rock's National Historian.  After all, he came to Lenny Bruce long after Lenny had died and no one asked why so late.  But that was back in the days when his albums were universally underrated, unlike today when he can sing to invisible chairs and every critic in the world will proclaim that he's better than ever.  It's an odd world at best, but for now "Tempest" is helping the Commute.



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