When Bob Dylan releases a new collection, someone must observe, first, that his ability to assemble a few songs and drag himself into a recording studio is, in and of itself, a thing of wonder. Dylan doesn't just put out an album. Time after time, like Lazarus on speed-dial, he makes a comeback.
Then the status of the miracle has to be assessed. When the artist in question is delivering his 35th studio album, the process becomes tricky. For the devout, Dylan's vast back catalogue is a concordance, full of precedents and parallels. Is the new one epochal (he's done those), catastrophic (ditto), or simply middling (too many to mention)?
Is the new album better than the last, approaching his best, or proof that, finally, a 71-year-old has lost it, whatever it was? For hardcore fans, this matters, as though one bum release could eradicate an entire unsurpassed career. They've seen Dylan pass beyond redemption before. Besides, there is the suspicion that a septuagenarian cannot have much more road left to run.
No sooner had Tempest begun to leak into the public domain last week than a familiar, pointless phrase began, yet again, to dominate online chatter: "The best since -" If so, the best since when, and what? Dylan scholarship, so called, depends on picked nits. Few had heard the new album more than once before one zealot upped the ante. Here was the best since Blonde On Blonde, no less.
This was ludicrous, of course, and irrelevant. Tempest is pretty damned good. If you have any time for Dylan – a whole other swamp – you won't hear a better set this year. But this artist is not allowed simple merit. Dylan is condemned to live within the vast shadow of Bob Dylan. He has laboured under that curse for most of those 50 years.
This is hardly his fault. As best as anyone can tell, Dylan does nothing more complicated than record albums when the songs to hand – if any – meet his specifications. He doesn't set out to stage cultural events, anatomise the social order, or put in a bid for the Nobel. Those are notions – as he tells it – foisted on him by true believers.
Album or no album, he meanwhile gives a lot of concerts. Because of this simple habit he is saddled with still more baggage, principally the myth – for him an infuriating myth – of "the never-ending tour". No matter that he has been denying the existence of this odyssey since 1993: he is cast, these days, as rock'n'roll's Ancient Mariner.
But that's another disjunction. Dylan has been lauded for decades and loaded with honours. He's had honorary degrees, the Pulitzer, an Oscar, a ton of Grammy awards, ribbons and medals and scrolls. In May, Barack Obama gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lots of books have been written – trust me – about this seminal figure. Yet how many albums has Dylan actually sold?
A figure of 80 million, spread across all those releases and all those decades, would be generous. The Beatles, for the purposes of comparison, have reputedly sold 210 million albums in the United States alone. In other words, this Dylan, this "voice of a generation", has never managed the trick of being vastly popular. Considering the attention he receives, this counts as odd.
Dylan's influence might be great, his every word significant. Tonight, for all that, he plays the Star Pavilion at the Hershey Entertainment Complex in Derry Township, Pennsylvania. He probably couldn't draw many more than the 7,500 people it accommodates. The place, in turn, is just another stop on another tour through towns like Uncasville, Connecticut, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan: a strange life for a supposed superstar who has, they say, staged an unparalleled old-age renaissance.
So what goes on in Tempest? Blood and death, a good deal of each, on the wrong side of fate, far from redemption. In an interview Dylan has muttered about attempting and failing to write religious songs for this album. The recordings say he is no longer too sure of what religious faith might mean. On this evidence his born-again days are long-gone, thank God. The songs are not brightened as a result, however.
One has 45 verses and lasts for 14 minutes; one is an elegy for the murdered John Lennon; one, the opener, involves a train hurtling through an American landscape that is physical, psychological and cultural. Elsewhere Dylan collapses and conflates history: Early Roman Kings is a song about (among other things) mobsters in sharkskin suits. Everywhere that old gift for rhyme shines. As the merry singer has it on Pay In Blood: "I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim/I got dogs that'll tear you limb from limb."
In tone and mood, at least, the Dylan of Tempest is reunited with the spitting-tacks youngster of the 1960s. He's vicious, and unforgiving. "Your father left you/Your mother, too/Even death has washed its hands of you," one victim is informed. Dylan presents himself as undeceived in all things. As a result, some of these lyrics are gloriously vindictive.
The music of 2012 inhabits a temporal quirk, however. Yet again, the blues, country swing, R&B and folk constructions are, in an odd way, pre-Dylan Dylan, as though the singer is reaching back beyond his own career. This music draws from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, as though the 1960s – and all that followed – never happened. The preamble to Duquesne Whistle, with its expert echoes of Bob Wills and Hank Williams, is reminder that the older Dylan is a student of history. It's where he finds his America.
Is Tempest worth your money? In terms of "as good as Blonde On Blonde" the question is fatuous. This is not just a different Dylan, but another Dylan. Tiresome types will remind you that the voice is "shot". The same types used to say he couldn't sing at all. For my money, the voice of this Dylan is glorious, monumental, rough as old boots, smooth as an insinuation, as modern as sin and scandal. Grandfather or not, it is a voice full of driven energy. The words are as fine, mostly, as any he has written.
But not perfect. The Lennon piece, Roll On John, leans towards empty piety and has far too many lazy quotations from the Beatle. The Titanic sank faster than a title song devoted to the disaster, with its weird nod toward the movie. The rest, though, is richer, stranger, more forbidding and yet more involving, than anything else on offer hereabouts.
It's an old man in all his ragged glory, still cheekily "allusive", stealing a verse – so I'm told – from Big Joe Turner for the opening lines of his opening song before dipping into Edgar Allen Poe, Whittier, the Mississippi Sheiks (I think) and others besides. Such is his 21st-century method. Some call it collage; others allege plagiarism. In truth it is a classical modernist device, a poet's strategy for making a dozen connections simultaneously.
It stands as one reason why Dylan is accounted a universal artist. Like the Walt Whitman he loves, he has become a landscape in his own right. People sometimes mistake it for America.