Bob Dylan's Senile Sublime

Sure, his record collection is boss. His radio show, Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, was a testament to that. His own albums back the boast up, too. And Dylan's latest, Tempest, is a flood of musicology frozen in black lacquer. At the New Yorker, Jody Rosen heard snatches of “Twist and Shout,” “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” and the 1920s ballroom rouser “I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.” We hear the title track — a 14-minute ballad about a famous luxury liner — and are reminded of Gavin Bryars' similarly discordant orchestral work on the same subject, The Sinking of the Titanic (1969). Let it be said: Dylan knows music.

But Dylan's real obsession is history, it always has been. So much so that his world is reflected in his lyrics and prose as a flock of symbols, avian ghosts, hurtling back toward their perches along a timeline he keeps in his memory.

“I sat up in bed and looked around,” Dylan wrote in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. “The room smelled of gin and tonic, wood alcohol and flowers. The place was a top floor walk-up in a Federal-style building near Vestry Street below Canal and near the Hudson River. On the same block was the Bull's Head, a cellar tavern where John Wilkes Booth, the American Brutus, used to drink. I'd been in there once and saw his ghost in the mirror — an ill spirit.”

Last month, Dylan told Rolling Stone of another haunting. This time it was a member of the Hells Angels — another Robert Zimmerman — who infested Dylan's imagination after the songwriter read about his death in Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club.

“I didn't know who I was before I read the Barger book,” Dylan told the magazine's Mikal Gilmore. “When you ask some of your questions, you're asking them to a person who's long dead. But people make that mistake about me all the time. I've lived through a lot.”

Indeed he has. By now, Dylan has seen almost as much history as he's read. As a pop star, he passed from Camelot to Vietnam; as a legend he's traveled from Woodstock generation to Spotify. Along the way, his self-mythologizing gene has worked with the same dedication as his talent. And the ghost stories he's grown fond of telling in recent years seem more like practical jokes than signs of mental dross.

But spooky tales sure go nicely with the latter-day croak Dylan's surrendered his voice to, don't they? Throughout Tempest, that voice — the one he used to sneer from his sinuses, “how does it feeeeeeel?” — rests in his throat, like black blood in a new corpse. This has been the most faithfully remarkable feature of “late period Dylan,” having first materialized in all its ragged glory on 1997's Time Out of Mind. In other singers, we hear their vocal control flex through the larynx muscles. It's an impressively physical trick when, say, Christina Aguilera bends a verse to her melodic whim. With Dylan, he seems to control his growl through some combination of strong will and voodoo.

On Tempest, Dylan delights in his hard-won timbre more than ever. Without his unnerving abandon, a menacing song like “Early Roman Kings” (with lines like: “I'm still hurtin' from an arrow/ That pierced my chest./ I'm gonna have to take my head/ And bury it between her breasts”) would be as affecting as an ode to erectile dysfunction.

But Dylan's rasp is at its sweetest when it's searching for lost time, not l'amour. And for almost a quarter of the album's duration, the songwriter routes through one night in 1912. By and large, critics have judged “Tempest” too long and rambling. And, sure, if you're intent on following the song's verse-by-verse reconstruction of the Titanic's sinking, you're in for a lot of heavy lifting. But as sonic wallpaper cut from Dylan's voiceprint, the music is hypnotic, strangely comforting once you let it wrap around you.

The unlikely power of this, Dylan's most eccentric original song of his late period, brings to mind the literary critic Barbara Herrnstein Smith's casual coinage of a “senile sublime.”

The senile sublime describes an artist's genius in twilight. It evokes the last fit they throw against time, before flesh becomes dirt and the mind gives way to the spirit. In his recent Rolling Stone interview, by claiming to have already given up this fight 50 years ago to his deceased namesake in the Hells Angels, Dylan seems to preemptively defend himself against accusations of the latent nuttiness that marks the senile sublime.

“Have you heard of transfiguration?” Dylan asked, invoking the biblical idea whereby a person is elevated to pure spirit. “Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. Well, you're looking at someone that's been [transfigured].”

Maybe Dylan was just having another of his private laughs, the kind he made at the expense of journalists throughout the 1965 tour film Don't Look Back. Or maybe an essential part of him did leave this planet some time ago. The only clues we have for guessing the state of Dylan's mind are through the state of his art. On Tempest, both remain haunted by history and his place in it.

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