Bob Dylan was never comfortable with the label “voice of his generation”. He always transcended generations, which tend to define themselves by ephemeral attitudes and fashions. But he always spoke to and from the heart of his times, expressing them and changing them. For that reason, it’s a bit meaningless to rank his great albums. Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde expressed and changed their times, Love & Theft and Tempest express and will change their times.  Different times, different kinds of albums.

I’d still like to suggest that Tempest is, on one level at least, the greatest of all Dylan’s achievements, because of the nature of the time in which it was made.

In the Sixties, there were a lot of big waves to ride, a lot of surfers lined up to ride them. Paddling out beyond the breakers was a communal exercise.  Not so today. Today Dylan is alone out there in the surf — local conditions are known to him alone. He has no companions on his prophetic mission.

You get a sense that the situation has driven him a bit mad, and it’s no accident that Tempest ends with a eulogy to John Lennon — to a time when Dylan had cohorts. “Roll On, John” is in part an evocation of Dylan’s own loneliness as an artist now — he misses Lennon not just as a friend and peer in a celebrated epoch, but as a living guide and inspiration.

Dylan has no guides or inspirations in popular culture today — his boon companions are ghosts.  The miracle is that he carries on — a frail-looking 71 year-old man who spends a third of the year on the road, singing “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “Like A Rolling Stone” for old fans who want to hear them live one more time and newer fans who want to say they’ve heard them live at least once.

And he makes new art out of the present day and his own advancing years — most of it still as fine and penetrating and prophetic as it was when he was young.  He’s in his prime now, as he always was — but doing what he does alone makes the accomplishment even greater, even more precious.

I could have gotten through 1966 without Blonde On Blonde — the Stones and the Beatles and the Beach Boys all released major work that year.  It would not have been the same without Dylan’s contribution, but it would have been fine.  2012 would not be fine without Tempest because it stands alone — the only beacon shining in the late watches of a very dark night.

Go here for more thoughts on Tempest, track by track.