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Fifty years into his career, Bob Dylan still surprises

Dylan's latest album, Tempest, reviewed.

Bob Dylan
Columbia, £8.99

Dylan fans have invented some amusing parlour games. One is “Guess That Song” from the strange, incomprehensible soup of his live performance. Another is keeping a running tally of the characters who pop up in his lyrical hall of fame. Over the years that exotic rogues’ gallery has included Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Cecil B DeMille, F Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Revere, Ma Rainey, Shakespeare, Einstein, Casanova, Neil Young and, astonishingly, Alicia Keys.

On Tempest (Columbia, £8.99), his 35th studio album, there are two more unlikely entries. The first is Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears in the title track, a 14-minute saga about the Titanic. The second is John Lennon in “Roll On John”, a hair-raisingly odd song in which naive fan poetry (“another day in the life/On the way to your journey’s end”) blends with an abstract study of American guilt and Lennon becomes an African slave, bound and gagged, sailing across the sea.

It’s wheels within wheels. The Titanic was an epic image in 1965’s “Desolation Row” (“Praise be to Nero’s Neptune/The Titanic sails at dawn”) and Dylan’s Lennon – “you burn so bright” – turns into William Blake’s tiger. You’re in at the deep end again, trying vainly to work out why Leo and John? What does he mean? It’s a game the author sees no sense in playing: asked recently about people’s obsession with analysing his layers of meaning, he said: “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of the answers myself.”

Whatever, there’s a direct relationship between difficulty and vitality in Dylan’s work. The 2009 album, Together Through Life, felt weirdly static somehow – a lot of creative ideas were hemmed in by blues pastiches and straight love lyrics, and even the antique musical settings seemed to lock each song down within its own sepia-tinged, imaginary world.

Tempest is different – destabilising, disorientating, dazzling. It’s from the same musical palette he’s been exploring since the “comeback” trilogy Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times (rich American roots, from creaky delta blues to juke joint swing, under the musical direction of his longtime bassist, Tony Garnier) but there’s something else going on here, too. The voice is startlingly close-miked and more urgent than it’s sounded in years, as if primed to deliver a few shocks.

The first three tracks are hot-blooded, reasonably coherent stories of love and deliverance – the throbbing train song “Duquesne Whistle”; the fairytale “Soon After Midnight” (which sets Edward Lear’s meters against the broken chords of “Unchained Melody”) and “Narrow Way”, which declares: “I’m gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts.” Then, half way through the blues lullaby “Long And Wasted Years” we are cast out, blinking, into a desert landscape of twisted metal and bright light, with a disembodied voice crying, “What are you doing out there in the sun anyway?/Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out?”

The bold, modernist refractions of different voices and historical settings continues through “Early Roman Kings” to the riveting “Tin Angel”, which follows an ancient king, with his buckskin and his ladies, into a symbolic, three-way suicide: “He leaned down and cut the electric wire/sat into the flames and snorted the fire.” It’s as dislocating as the time-travel in 1965’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, where he tore a parking ticket from the mast of the Mayflower.

Set against the faceless, vaguely masonic agents of power on Tempest, the title song about the Titanic is surprisingly light – a sea shanty full of bathos and deadpan humour: “Leo said to Cleo, I think I’m going mad/But he’d lost his mind already, whatever mind he had . . .”

Dylan has denied any direct connection between his album and Shakespeare’s last play (“That was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain Tempest,” he said.) But whether or not this is his own swansong, there’s reason to compare it with that older swashbuckling, baroque wonder, which one scholar once called “an echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs”.

Prospero was Shakespeare’s study of the great magical mind in old age, throwing all he had into one last vision for Miranda – the highbrow, the lowbrow, the politics, the masques and the fairies. Tempest could be Dylan’s own creative sign-off. When you get to your 35th record, in your 50th year of recording, I rather imagine the only person your music is intended to amuse is yourself. So if John Lennon turns into William Blake’s tiger, who then sets out on the range “where the buffalo roam” – well, perhaps it’s not so hard to understand why them, and why now, after all.

Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.