'Duquesne Whistle' Isn't Ground-Breaking, But It Is Classic Dylan

After his 2009 Christmas album, Bob Dylan had a lot to answer for, and whilst it isn't anything other than Dylan-esque, it's nice to hear from him again...
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As poisoned chalices go, this is a pretty big one.

Dylan's place in history is beyond question, but it's been a long time since we've heard anything truly jaw-dropping from the great man. It was therefore with apprehension that I clicked on this link and pressed play.

Lyrically, this is a slice of classic Dylan

Duquesne Whistle represents Dylan's first new material since his ill-conceived and generally ridiculed Christmas record in 2009. It acts as the first introduction to his 35th studio album Tempest, which will be released next month. Not for Dylan the idea that one should slow down a bit at the age of seventy-one: this album has been recorded in the breaks between shows on the Never-Ending tour and the title track is a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Having sat through Neil Young's concept album about the electric car, it is clear to me that this is a decision which could go either way.

Initially, the signs seem pretty good. A twinkly, twangy intro is drawn straight out of any number of 1930s Westerns. This soon gives way to a swinging jam reminiscent of The Band in their heyday. It's got drive and purpose, an inevitability that moves the song on and repeats throughout, like the train from which the lyric draws its inspiration. It's toe-tapping stuff and, with the exception of a break before the coda that seems to have been dragged in from another song, it keeps you hooked in throughout.

After a minute or so of introduction a fuzzed-up chord change introduces Dylan's vocal, which is always going to polarise opinion. There are those who will tell you that complaining that Dylan can't sing any more is a moot point because he's never been able to. These people have clearly never listened to Desire, but it does remain the case that Dylan's voice is now so gravelly as to remind the listener more of Tom Waits than Woody Guthrie. Age, life and constant touring have all taken their toll and you'd have to be generous to describe Dylan's present vocal performances as characterful. Rather, he's growling the words and you can hear every scratch in his throat.

He's growling the words and you can hear every scratch in his throat.

Lyrically though, this is a slice of classic Dylan and acts like a bit of a Spotter's Guide for Dylanologists. Biographical in places, this is a story of regret and heartbreak (“You're like a time bomb in my heart”) with a fair number of classic stock characters appearing along the way (“You say I'm a gambler, you say I'm a pimp”) and the ever-present spectre of a lost love seemingly characterised as the lonely whistle of a train in the distance.

It may not be breaking much new ground, but this is a solid introduction to his new record. In the hands (or rather the throat) of another, this could be a wonderful piece. As it is, we've got a good introduction to the new record, but I defy even the most dedicated Dylan apologists to tell me they're looking forward to hearing that voice sing about the Titanic for fourteen minutes.

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