50 years of recording. 35 albums. New schools created and abandoned, with followers in every wake; new points of view and styles embraced and discarded and rearranged; ups and downs in inspiration and reception, emotional highs and lows and even brushes with death and yet, here is Bob Dylan, 71 years young, still blazing along, sharp as an arrowhead, showing once again that his talent, his genius, ain’t goin nowhere. TEMPEST, the much hyped and soon-to-be exhaustively analyzed (and inexhaustibly played) new album, is, either by surprise or inevitability or maybe a change in the weather (known to be extreme?) a new classic, plain and simple, and clear as day. Find whatever superlatives you want to throw at it – they’ll all stick. It’s Bob Dylan at his best.
What does that mean? Does it mean it’s untouchable, inaccessible except to those in the Know? Not at all. Or at least not really. It means it’s fun, sad, dirty, sweet, refined, messy, poignant, throw-away, serious, stormy and sunny: when Bob Dylan is at his best, his albums seem to encompass the full spectrum of human emotion into a whirlwind that’s catchy and dense, easy to embrace and understand viscerally/ emotionally but worth listening to closely, for the references, allusions, odes and wizardry: there’s always more to his work than you think as his wordplay and imagery can defy logic. The music reaches far and wide in it’s influences yet it connects directly, always with an aftershock of ambiguity; you can get his music, without fully getting it, there are always mysteries, there’s always something just out of reach, and that’s where the listener becomes involved in the creation, that’s where he lets you in; that’s why his songs are so alive and fresh.
Always rough and now rougher than ever, that unmistakable been-all-around-the-world voice cuts to the core, and it’s why nobody ever sings Dylan songs better than he does. Hendrix re-invented “All Along the Watchtower” with guitar virtuosity, the Byrds turned “Mr. Tambourine Man” into a hippy chime, Van Morrison turned “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” into an lovely limbo loop– but none of these wonderful versions quite equaled Dylan’s vocal takes. His voice scratches, feels like its about to go out. He sings like it’s all he’s got, and at his age, as he still plays about 100 live shows a year, it can now at times sound like gravel on sand paper mixed with tarred shards of glass, echoing through a well. Yeah, it’s rough, but as evocative as ever.
The album begins with a mellow, pretty little interlude, like a stroll in the park. His great touring band sets the foundation before things kick up a notch and Dylan pipes in: “Listen to that Duquense Whistle blowing…” And we’re off. That train keeps on rolling along like life itself, and Dylan’s attitude initially is warm and wise. Life’s gonna end some day, so enjoy the ride while you can. This is the one song on the record that’s co-written by Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter (who co-wrote most of the songs on Together Through Life with Dylan) and it’s a sweet, unassuming start, a light in the darkness that we’ll remember faintly as things get bleak.
Soon After Midnight follows with a seemingly romantic and elegiac Dylan ‘Searching for phrases/ to sing your praises’, lovingly mentioning women he cares for equally… women of the night like Honey (who took his money) Charlotte (the harlot who dresses in Scarlet) and the Fairy Queen (a singular individual image for each listener) before he sings of dragging two timing Slim’s corpse through the mud – - a fascinating contrast of warm style and dark content (Dylan’s got the forces of good and evil a-wrestlin’ here). It’s deceptively lovely.
Narrow Way is one of those bluesy stompers Dylan has been mastering for years and loves playing live, catchy and familiar, steeped in history. It has raunchy talk about ‘laying my hands all over you and tying you to my side’ (reminiscent of the line from “Things Have Changed” about putting a woman in a wheelbarrow and wheeling her down the street). He’s a bit horny here, declaring to his love that ‘I’ll have to take my head and bury it between your breasts’ before telling us, matter of factly that ‘I love women and she loves men’. The song has a sense of frantic vitality – he’s old and grey but his hearts still a-beatin’.
‘Shaking a baby, twist and shout/ you know what it’s all about,’ Dylan talk-sings on Long and Wasted Years, recalling Neil Young’s similar style on his Greendale and Are You Passionate albums and making a reference to John Lennon, who will show up again. It feels fresh and it’s confessional: ‘I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/ there’s secrets in them that I can’t disguise,’ he sings at one point, and again conjures trains (two running side by side – again, dual forces are always at war on this record). The song moves along, caring, critical, regretful and grudgingly resolved- ‘We cried on a cold and frosty morn/ We cried because our souls were torn/ So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years.‘ It’s a beauty.
Next is Pay In Blood, a blistering, vital rocker that will instinctively make you reach for the volume dial. It’s alive and exuberant, his voice more haggered here than anywhere, straining to the point of disintegration. ‘I pay in blood, but not my own,’ he snarles and wheezes with defiance, wrestling with his foes – it’s got the fire of his most fiery and angry stuff and seems to reference the state of the economy, with people out of jobs and fed up… ‘Another politician, pumping out the piss/ Another ragged beggar blowing you a kiss/ You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does/ If only you could prove who your father was/ Someone must have slipped a drug in your wine/ You gulped it down and you crossed the line’… he rattles on, shards flying… ‘I’ve been through hell/ What good did it do?/ You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you?’ As far as bad ass rock n’ roll goes, what’s better than this? And how does he make being pissed off so much fun? Don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years. ‘Hear me hollar, hear me moan/ I pay in blood, but not my own.’
Things get turned down a notch on the contemplative old-time Western feeling Scarlet Town, which can be seen as the beginning of the album’s second Act. Things started sweet before turning tough and wild; the second half of the album is slower, more contemplative, more brooding, more classical in a sense. Scarlet Town (‘where I was born’) is a kind of limbo – things seem normal, but darkness and death are on the horizon and past memories never fully vanish. ‘You fight em high, and you fight em down in/ You fight em with whisky, morphine and gin”… and now instead of a warm train whistle blowing, there’s a chilly wind and “the evil and good, livin’ side by side.’ A woman named Mary comforts (presumably) her husband on his death bed; Baby Blue is invited to blow his horn and things are looking grim. There is not optimism, just stoic realism. ‘If love is a sin and beauty is a crime/ All things are beautiful in their time/ They’re black and they’re white/ They’re yellow and they’re brown/ It’s all right there for you in Scarlet Town.‘
Early Roman Kings focuses on a favorite target of Dylan’s throughout the years, the fat cats who run things, the gluttonous and greedy at the top, the ‘sluggers and muggers/ wearing fancy gold rings‘ and shark skin suits. Nevertheless, ‘all the women go crazy/ for the early roman kings’. It’s a bluesy cut and like the previous track would have been right at home on Modern Times. Like everybody else in the world of Tempest, these notable people are also on their way out of the world. Like Dylan, they’re biding their time. ‘I ain’t dead yet/ my bell still rings/ I keep my fingers crossed/ like the early Roman kings’.
Tony Garnier’s sliding-down-the-neck bassline lays the foundation for the 28-verse Tin Angel, a tale of adultery and bloody revenge. The Boss’ wife runs away with another man (Old Henry Lee, ‘chief of the clan’) so he goes after them, telling his servant, ‘Go fetch me my coat and my tie/ and the cheapest labor that money can buy/ Saddle me up my buckskin mare/ If you see me go by, put up a prayer’. He finds them and confronts them… and things end really bad for all involved in this crime of passion. Thematically the song recalls “Love Henry”, a great traditional ballad Dylan covered on 1993’s World Gone Wrong. This is a tale from long ago, how long we can’t be certain: there is a line about cutting an electric wire but the husband also wears a helmet and carries a sword.
Tempest, the 14 minute magnum opus, is the kind of straight-forward folk song Dylan might have written in the early 60s. He focuses on a large ensemble of characters aboard the Titanic in it’s last moments, 45 verses about how people may have reacted at the time, some with honor and some with shame. It’s also about the situation most people will find themselves in when their card is drawn: looking death in the face during the final moments of their lives. It’s about facing this mortality with honor and bravery as much as it’s about bad luck and the way a tragic story affects those who live on – it seems like ‘love has lost it’s fire/ and all things run their course’… The reacurring image is of the ship’s watchman asleep at the wheel, dreaming of the Titanic sinking. The more I listen to the song the more effective it is, the more the story lines, characters and incidents of revelation gel and the unusual sense of loss, the loss of many long ago, resonates. Somehow time has softened things; it’s a story of ghosts and dreams or maybe of an alternate reality where the Titanic is always sinking and re-sinking. Dylan himself remains the narrator and not a participant, he’s outside of it all, more so than on any other song on the album. Way back when, he took the story song structure of those who went before him and personalized things, reinvented things. I think the song is self referential, a nod to his past; it invites comparison to his most early work, compliments it and surpasses it. In the album’s closing track, he focuses on the death on an individual and it’s a logical step from this timeless song. Whether many or one, loss is loss.
‘Doctor, doctor tell me the time of day/ Another bottle’s empty/ Another penny spent/ He turned around and he slowly walked away/ They shot him in the back and down he went/ Shine a light/ Movin’ on/ You burned so bright/ Roll on, John’ begins Roll on John, Dylan’s lump-in-the -throat tribute to John Lennon, his friend and peer. They influenced each other and revered each other. Dylan quotes some of his choice songs and connects them to his fame, his murder, his legacy and maybe even loosely connects things to the Titanic: ‘I heard the new today, oh boy/ They hauled your ship up on the shore/ Now the city gone dark, there is no more joy/ They tore the heart right out and cut him to the core… Roll on, John’ before Dylan describes a grave for his body to lie in. ‘In the forests of the night/ Cover him over and let him sleep’… It’s an overwhelmingly heartfelt tune, and it ends things on a sad note but not one without hope. It’s all gonna end, but Dylan seems to see the soul as something that lives on, maybe in another world but certainly here on earth, in our work, in the memories we leave, in the people we loved, and who love us still, even after we’re gone… It’s heavy stuff, this album. Tales spun from the mind of an old master, the likes of which we’re not likely to see again, in this life or the next.