Bob Dylan had sealed his place among the artistic immortals with the groundbreaking body of work he’d created by the time he was 30, but as he ambles into his 70s, he’s earning another distinction: is there any rocker who’s aged more impressively than Dylan?
The most acclaimed surviving artists among his peers, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones’ “Glimmer Twins” (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards), remained sort of interesting into the 1980s but in recent years have settled into coasting on past triumphs, dying their hair for the occasional arena tour. Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell have remained vital, but for all their justly acclaimed music, they’re not at Dylan’s level.
Dylan had his slump too, in the 1980s, but even that was only a slump in relative terms—yes, there was Down in the Groove, but there were also “Blind Willie McTell,” “Angelina,” “Series of Dreams,” and enough other gems that they would alone constitute a remarkable career for any other artist. Then, 1989′s Oh Mercy presaged the astonishing return to form that brought Dylan to a third career peak (after his 60s and mid-70s triumphs) with Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001).
What’s most impressive about late Dylan is that he hasn’t just survived health scares and the decline of his vocal strength; he’s actually adapted his writing and performing style to draw new resonance from his older material even as he writes new songs that can stand comfortably among his classics. After all, this is a guy whose baby-faced debut album included songs like “In My Time of Dyin’” and “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”: in a sense, Dylan’s entire career has been a prelude to his demise.
Dylan’s brand-new album, Tempest (sharing a name with Shakespeare’s last play), is all the more powerful for its open acknowledgement of the performer’s age. References to his mortality are peppered throughout the record, but the music is so vital and the lyrics so sharp and—for lack of a better word—feisty that the collection sounds more alive than 99% of anything produced this year by younger performers.
The opening song and pre-release single, “Duquesne Whistle,” is a low-key affair that didn’t generate high expectations for the rest of the disc—but that was misleading. The bulk of Tempest finds Dylan back in the energetic mode of Modern Times (2006) rather than the blah Together Through Life (2009). The disc overflows with words, but the lyrics feel precise and evocative, even in sprawling story-songs like “Tin Angel” and the title track. From “Like a Rolling Stone” to “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” to “Hurricane” to “Brownsville Girl” to “Highlands” and beyond, Dylan’s always thrived in long-form, and the generous Tempest is no exception.
The understated delivery of “Duquesne Whistle” might have led one to believe that Dylan was essentially finished singing and would be talking his way through the remainder of his career, but on songs like “Narrow Way” his gargly rasp turns into a near-roar. He’s never sounded more confident, deploying his seven decades of experience, accomplishment, and stature with savvy craft that withers the hollow braggadocio of younger artists.
“Do not go gentle into that dark night,” wrote the poet who inspired Bob Zimmerman’s adopted surname. Bob Dylan is certainly following that admonition, as well as his own, from a 1965 press conference captured in the documentary Don’t Look Back: “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.”