Bob Dylan’s Triumphant Fourth Act Continues with “Tempest”.

First came the troubled and wondrously angry young man of the 1960s. Then there was the older and wiser and all too wounded solitary figure of the 70s. Then, even more remarkably, he re-emerged for a third incarnation with Oh Mercy in 89 and then with Time Out Of Mind.

And if that weren’t enough, he burst forth for a fourth time, back on to the scene and into relevance in the 00s with an explosion of activity.

Four albums (so far) with Love and Theft (01), Modern Times (06), Together Through Life (09) and now Tempest. The extraordinarily candid Chronicles Volume One (04).  Scorsese’s documentary. And of course the peerless Theme Time Radio Hours (see here for earlier review).

If you want to understand where his latest album Tempest is coming from, and how he arrived at it, you need to go back to Chronicles and its fourth chapter on “Oh Mercy”.

It had never occurred to me that, by the 1980s, Dylan might have been every bit as disappointed with what he’d been doing with himself for the previous fifteen years or so as his legion of fans were. Nobody, it transpires, was quite as disillusioned with the path that he’d chosen to go down than he himself was.

“There was a missing person inside of myself and I needed to find him.”

He says at the beginning of the chapter and we don’t so much as follow him as he recalls where he was then. Rather we’re there with him, in real time, as he burrows deep inside in the hope of discovering the source of his turmoil.

” I felt done for, an empty burned-out wreck…  I’m a ’60s troubadour, a folk-rock relic, a wordsmith from bygone days… in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion. I was what they called over the hill.”

Until all of a sudden, out of absolutely nowhere, he stumbles into a jazz joint and has one of those near-mythical, Joycean epiphanies. And to his astonishment, where he needs to be going, musically, and what he needs to do to get there are gloriously and crystal clear. And he begins the journey out of his self-sculpted Stygian gloom and back into the light.

“I had a gut feeling that I had created a new genre, a style that didn’t exist as of yet and one that would be entirely my own.”

It would take him years to get there, that much was clear.

“I wished I was at least twenty years younger, wished that I had just dropped on the scene all over again.”

But for the first time in years, he was palpably excited.

“I was anticipating the spring, looking forward to stepping out on the stage where I’d be entirely at once author, actor, prompter, stage manager, audience and critic combined. That would be different.”

In retrospect, the next couple of albums, Oh Mercy and Time Out Of Mind were not so much the result of that new approach as they were stations on the way.

It was only with the current batch that that destination had truly been arrived at. And Tempest is the latest, and therefore the best example of where that was.

There’s a fascinating interview he gives with Mikal Gilmore in the September issue of Rolling Stone. You can get a taster of what’s in it here.

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“Theme Time Radio Hour”, Bob Dylan’s Four Dazzling Acts.

There are famously no second acts in American lives. But as he has on so many other occasions, Bob Dylan has proved himself the glorious exception to Fitzgerald’s famous maxim.

Dylan’s first act culminated in an extraordinary 14 months between March 1965 and May ’66 when he released no less than three epoch-defining albums; Bringing It All Back HomeHighway 61 Revisited and the still seminal double album, Blonde On Blonde. Then however, just as suddenly as he’d emerged, he disappeared into the undergrowth, opting for domestic bliss and the anonymity afforded by his basement in Woodstock.

To everyone’s surprise and amazement though, he burst back into relevance in the mid 70s with Blood On The Tracks in ’74, Desire in ’75 and the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. But within a year or two his brief renaissance had passed, and by the late 70s he’d resumed his role as a relic of an era that had long since passed. The never-ending tour he seemed determined to persist with looked like little more than an excuse for him to avoid having to ever look himself in the mirror.

But to everyone’s further amazement, a decade later he sprang back into life again, first with No Mercy in ’89, and then with Time Out Of Mind in ’97, both of which were produced by Daniel Lanois. These three acts would comfortably have seen his name forever carved in stone on high.

Remarkably though, these last few years have been arguably his most productive period to date. Three fine albums in Love And Theft (’01), Modern Times (’06) and Together Through Life (’09), particularly the first. A novelty Christmas album, which was far better than it had any right to be. That extraordinary autobiography Chronicles: Volume One (’04), which had nothing to say about his personal life, but which was exceptionally candid and brilliantly illuminating on his music (particularly on the epiphany that resulted in the release of  Oh Mercy.). Plus Scorsese’s brilliant documentary, Bringing It All Back Home. And amongst all of which, somewhat improbably, he embarked upon a new career path as a 21st. century DJ.

The idea behind Theme Time Radio Hour is simple enough. For one hour every week, Dylan takes a theme, say “Marriage”, or “Cigarettes”, and spins discs associated with the chosen theme. He plays little or nothing from the mid 70s onwards, sticking for the most part to the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, though there are also a healthy handful from the 40s and even 30s. There are three series so far, comprising some 100 hours. And each and every single track, on every single one of them, is an absolute gem. Not only that, but his sly but enthusiastic intros are every bit as enjoyable as the forgotten finds he’s continually unearthing and correctly celebrating.

It is, by a considerable distance, the finest hour of listening to be found anywhere in the ether. Furthermore, it’s made for the “Shuffle” mode. As it’s almost as enjoyable having whatever it is that you’re listening to incongruously interrupted by one of Dylan’s droll intros before returning to your own playlist, as it is hearing the actual track that his intro was referring to.

TTRH is an education and a constant source of joy. And once again, that man from Minnesota has produced yet another rabbit from that apparently bottomless hat of his.

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