World anticipates a Tempest (and also a new Bob Dylan album)

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It’s a kind of marketing with which we’re becoming familiar from the Bob Dylan “camp”: rumors of a new album being recorded, followed weeks or months later by an official announcement, and then the granting of a “listening session” to certain select music journalists, with the proviso, mind you, that no notes be taken.

It’s been a highly effective way of creating a buzz (and Dylan has had two albums which entered various charts around the world at number one in the past decade). However, lest we dismiss it too cynically as a hyping mechanism, we should at least bear in mind that were one of these people at a listening session to come away saying how incredibly dull the record was (“I almost fell asleep! I just wanted to escape!”) then that would not do much for the sales prospects. You can avoid that to some degree by picking people whom you expect will enjoy the music, but there’s no guarantees.

As far as I know, only one writer who’s heard the forthcoming album has said anything about it to date, and that’s Allan Jones of the UK’s Uncut magazine. He did not fall asleep, it seems. After four or five tracks, he says, he was only thinking “how much better is this thing going to get?” Now that’s the kind of buzz you really like to have.

In terms of concrete characterizations, Jones really only says that the album has less of the “roadhouse blues” or “jazzy riverboat shuffles” that has populated the last three Dylan albums, but he alludes instead to songs like “Red River Shore” or “’Cross the Green Mountain” in terms of what the new record feels like. Those are great songs; in fact they are unforgettable classics of Dylan’s latter-day career. Again, high marks for buzz, although I do presume that Allan Jones is merely giving his honest impression rather than trying to hype anything.

As soon as the album title was known, speculation began that it would be Dylan’s final album, as Shakespeare’s play The Tempest has been understood by some to be the last play which that bard wrote on his own. Personally, I dismiss this out of hand. It’ll be Dylan’s final album only if he dies or is otherwise incapacitated before he’s inspired to make another one, but I don’t think Dylan is going to impose some artificial end point on his musical creativity. It doesn’t fit with how he’s nursed his craft and pursued his muse all along (or, if you prefer, how he’s been nursed by his craft and been pursued by his muse). It’s not something you just pull the plug on.

The title, Tempest, is also the title of a song; it’s a song which Allan Jones, by the way, says is very long, with verses piling upon verses a là “Desolation Row.”

It seems a timely title for a new Dylan album, almost disconcertingly so; to me it is disconcerting at any rate. I look at the news every day and see everything apparently lining up at the mouth of a great vortex: economic catastrophe, war, famine and pestilence. Quite literally. I’m filled with foreboding, although it’s probably only noteworthy by its current degree. I’ve always anticipated apocalypse. It’s probably why I got invited to so few birthday parties as a kid.

And in fairness Dylan has also always had a bedrock of doom-laden foresight in his music. You can go right from some of the first songs he chose to sing on his debut album, like “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” and “Fixin’ To Die,” all the way through to … well, “Tempest,” I expect. There has always been an awareness of personal mortality married to those more eschatological kinds of visions.

It is a very significant part of why I love his music, and I think that goes for many others too. Dylan tells it like it is. And the truth is, to the extent it‘s not falling apart already, it is about to.

But that’s no reason to abandon good cheer, after all. On the contrary, it’s all the more reason to enjoy some new Bob Dylan songs, while we still can.

The album will be released in the U.S. on Tuesday, September 11th, 2012.