I’ve been thinking about the late work of Bob Dylan. My favorite talking point here is Tempest, his most recent record of original material, from 2012. Really his whole catalog post-Time Out Of Mind is a substantial body of work that has been insufficiently reckoned with. (Time Out Of Mind, notice, is not a recent effort anymore; it’s twenty-two years old.) Tempest crystallizes the enigma. Here is Bob Dylan at age seventy-one, with thirty-four studio albums to his name; and he says, “what I need to do is write a fourteen-minute song about the Titanic.” Since Tempest he’s released three full albums of standards. People don’t know how to deal with this. I do think his version of “Some Enchanted Evening” speaks for itself, but of course your attitude toward Dylan, and toward standards, is going to determine your reaction.
Yet more controversial is Dylan’s “never ending tour.” He has been playing roughly 100 shows a year for thirty years nonstop, often in small cities, often in unusual venues. It is easy to ignore this when, like me, you have caught maybe two of these 3,000 concerts. But with a little perspective, it’s clear that Dylan has dedicated himself to live performance in a way few musicians at his level of fame have attempted. The repertoire on the set lists is unpredictable, and his interpretations have shifted along with the aging of his voice. Bill Wyman’s article for Vulture contends thoughtfully with some of the bizarrenesses of the situation. I especially like his comparison of Dylan to Lefty, from the Townes van Zandt song.
A couple years back when Leonard Cohen’s last album came out, I found it so immediate and beautiful that I had to step into his work from recent decades, from Old Ideas (2012) to Live in London (2009) to I’m Your Man (1988). The growling, the synths, the backup singers: I heard it all differently in the context of You Want It Darker. If the early work doesn’t set up a context for the late work, maybe sometimes the later music can draw a line backwards in time. I’ve had similar experiences with the Beatles’ discography and even the piano sonatas and string quartets of Beethoven.
When someone makes a masterful statement at some point, and they’re still making music decades later, we need to take these later efforts seriously—and more difficultly, we need to take them on their own terms. We need to assume that these musicians know exactly what they’re doing. If it’s something completely different and we don’t understand it right away, that’s on us.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues