So yesterday I picked up Dylan's(*) latest CD, the one that has been getting rave reviews and even topped the charts in the US.
My reaction? First -- the sound is every bit as bad as Dylan complains ("Atrocious... these songs probably sounded 10 times better in the studio when we recorded 'em.") Except that he blames it on modern recording technology and, in particular, on CDs, which he says "are small. There's no stature to it."
No, the medium is not the problem. I have a few hundred CDs and most of them, whether originally recorded in the '30s or the '00s, sound excellent -- as does a lot of live audio (in particular, the soundboard recordings) that you can pick up from places like archive.org. The problem in Dylan's case seems to be an excess of reverb and echo (it sounds a bit like Phil Spector's disasters from the 1970s) combined with a "flattening" of the dynamic range, so that all the instruments, and Dylan's own voice, have roughly the same volume. As a result it all sounds indistinct and muddy -- or, in Dylan's words, "no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like ... static." Dylan should get himself some new sound engineers.
Musically the band is competent. It seems extreme of Dylan to call them "the best band he's ever had" (what about The Band?) but they do their job well. And the words? Mostly they're reworkings of old folk and blues tunes (and I don't see why Dylan can claim music-writing credit for "Rollin' and Tumblin'", but maybe he figured that nearly all twelve-bar blues songs have the same tune anyway).
And the lyrics are disappointing. First, I find it hard to follow them by listening, and second, even if I "read along" (on the web -- my CD booklet did not contain lyrics) they don't seem to mean anything. "Visions of Johanna" didn't seem to mean anything either, but it seemed to speak directly and insistently to its listener. Not these songs. Taken as poetry, they're pretty bad, and the messages seem pretty naive too. ("There's an evenin' haze settlin' over town / Starlight by the edge of the creek / The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down / Money's gettin' shallow and weak / Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory / It's a new path that we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad"). While it doesn't plumb depths such as 1983's "License to kill" ("Oh, man has invented his doom / First step was touching the moon") or his late-1970s born-again music, it doesn't soar to any particular heights either.
Comparisons are odious, so I'll be odious. The other elderly poet-singer enjoying a renewed burst of activity is Leonard Cohen, who released his last album ("Dear Heather") in 2004, and followed it up this year with a book of poetry ("Book of longing") and an album where he doesn't sing or perform but contributes lyrics (Anjani's "Blue Alert"). Most of "Blue Alert", and much of "Dear Heather", really is poetry set to music, and in songs like "Undertow" and the title song from Dear Heather he says more in a stanza than Dylan does in ten.
Cohen tells a story of how he and Dylan were sitting talking in a cafe in Paris; at that time Cohen had been impressed by Dylan's "I and I" (in fact he's an outspoken admirer of Dylan), while Dylan had been performing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in concert. Dylan asked Cohen how long it took him to write "Hallelujah", and Cohen said two years. Then Cohen asked Dylan how long it took to write "I and I", and Dylan said 15 minutes.
On this occasion I wish Dylan had taken a bit longer over his lyrics.
All the same, this is probably his best album since "Desire" thirty years ago.
(*)update - I mean Bob, of course