I have awaited today with a fervid anticipation almost since the not-so-long-ago announcement of this album’s imminent release. A new Bob Dylan album! One I can spend many an hour drooling over and expressing my adoration for it in a long winded and drawn out article that will likely interest no-one but give me great pleasure in writing! Fantastic, what more could I want? And although I’m likely blinded by my all-consuming love for Zimmy’s music, no matter how bad, (his last effort, Christmas in the Heart, was embarrassingly bad, and yet has still been played over 10 times the whole way through according to my iTunes) I’m pretty sure I’m making a fair judgment when I say this album rocks. And I don’t just mean that as a descriptor, I mean that literally, this album is often loud and raucous and violent; an absolute riot. Much has been said in pre-release reviews that it’s both Dylan’s “strangest” and “darkest” album yet. Frankly accusing Dylan of being strange is like accusing Adele of being depressing - everyone knows it and expects it. But as for being dark… these critics have a point. Many of Tempest’s songs play out like Shakespearean tragedies, full of strange characters, consuming lusts, murderous sensibilities and evil desires. Heck, when the closing two songs are about the sinking of the Titanic and the murder of John Lennon, you know the rest of the album isn’t likely to be all sunshine and lollipops.
Tempest isn’t a brusque and gloomy affair from the word go, however. At least, not openly. It lulls you into a false sense of security, with a salvo of opening songs that although are fairly euphonious, contain certain hints of the brutality that is to come. The opener Duquesne Whistle is likely a leftover from 2009’s Together Through Life, being the only song to attribute a co-writing credit to Robert Hunter, with whom Dylan wrote said album. It also shares the flippancy and romantic optimism of the songs on that album, as well as the throwback to that old Chess/Sun Records sound of the pre-1960’s with its breezy slide guitar and whimsical interplay between instruments and vocals. Dylan’s voice might be shot, but you can sure hear the sincerity and nostalgia in his voice. The old bluesy theme of the train, (see Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain) his memories of “that woman” and the fantastic sound make this one a solid opener with just a hint of foreboding. Moving onto Soon After Midnight; a shorter and slower piece with another piece of gorgeous guitar, this is Dylan’s best attempt at a true love for many a year, yet still he manages to inject a little taster of the violence that is to come on this record: “Two-timing Slim, who’s ever heard of him? I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Just something to unsettle us and make sure we don’t fall into the trap of thinking he’s gone soft in his old age. Quite the contrary, as it turns out. The years haven’t softened Mr. Dylan; some of his lyrics on Tempest are vicious in a way we haven’t heard since Positively 4th Street. On Narrow Way, one of his best rockers of the last ten years, he lets his contempt for a loose woman let rip, and combines it with a sly self-depreciation: “You got too many lovers/Waiting at the wall,/If I had a thousand tongues/I couldn’t count ‘em all./Yesterday I could’ve thrown ‘em all in the sea/Today, even one may be too much for me.” Gotta give credit to the band on this one in particular; they’re tight and sharp and drive that riff clean into the ground. Sure, there’s not much scope for improvisation and it’s essentially the same riff for over 7 minutes, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t blow my socks off. Pay In Blood begins with some of Dylan’s phlegmiest vocals, but once his voice clears up it becomes pretty obvious that this is a vicious tirade. “I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you’ve done.” “I pay in blood, but not my own.” “I’ve been through hell, what good did it do? You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you?” and ”You got your lover in the bed, come here I’ll break your lousy head” are a few choice lines. He ain’t holding anything back here folks, in his 71st year Mr. Dylan seems as determined as ever to challenge us lyrically and prove to us that he can still ignite some sparks.
One of the things that really strikes me about Tempest is the diversity of the record. It matches 11-year-old masterpiece “Love And Theft” in that respect: it’s got some good ballads and rockers, straight-up love songs and complex tales involving strange characters, unified under Dylan’s by-now-typical banner of Americana and bluesy music. Early Roman Kings shamelessly plagiarizes the riff from Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man (Which was also used by Muddy Waters in his song Mannish Boy, so hey, if Muddy could do it, why not Bob?) and uses it as a springboard for some hilarious and bizarre imagery. “All the early Roman Kings/In their Sharkskin suits/Bow ties and buttons/High top boots/Driving the spikes in/Blazing the rails/nailed in their coffins/In top hats and tails” Farcically inaccurate and surreal of course, just like the best of Dylan’s work, and patently hilarious. These egotistic manic bizarre “lecherous and treacherous” characters reminds us of Dylan’s knack for conjuring fascinating characters, lifting bits from popular culture and stewing them together in a melting pot of the original and not-so-original. As a result Early Roman Kings, despite its fairly uninteresting musical backing, is a stormer of a song. Even having the gusto to compare himself to some of these bizarre ancient characters, (now that I think about it it’s actually a pretty fair comparison) he confesses “I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag,” and, quite tellingly, “I ain’t dead yet/my bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed/like the early Roman Kings.” He’s got plenty of life in him yet, and he ain’t about to get assassinated anytime soon folks, sorry to let you down. He’s going to keep on going in his bizarre world, sitting on his lyrical throne, till death gets him naturally. Fingers crossed. Like an early Roman King he’s not going to go down without a fight.
Much has been made of the final three tracks: a half hour of long ballads of murder, death and tragedy. I have somewhat mixed opinions about them all, but I’ll say from the onset that in order – Tin Angel, Tempest and Roll on John, they get less engaging as they go along. Tin Angel is quite possibly the highlight of the album, an opinion I did not have on first listen. Musically it was quite unengaging, with a plodding drum beat over which a simple, stark double bass and acoustic guitar lay bare. Boring, thought I. Gave it a few more listens: quite the contrary. It took me until now to realize what an astonishing pairing of music and lyrics Tin Angel contains. A desolate, nine-minute ballad of adultery, murder and suicide, it slowly unravels over this consistent, distant and unchanging music… like Bob himself, the omniscient narrator, observing from afar, telling the tale not to condemn or comment, but merely because it needs to be told. As the story comes to its bloody end, Bob offers no hope of respite, nothing good to be salvaged from this tragic tale… the music just fades out and he stops singing. Tin Angel is an eerie masterpiece, a ballad of disquietude and sorrow, and at nine minutes not at all loquacious. On the other hand, we are greeted with the title track Tempest. Prior to the album’s release this seemed to be the one track everyone was talking about. Oh it’s a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic! It surely must be another Desolation Row! Sadly, for every Desolation Row there’s a Joey. Why Bob chose to make a song about the sinking of the Titanic the centerpiece of this album is anyone’s guess; of course this year marked the 100th anniversary of its fate but Bob will likely be the first person to tell you it has nothing to do with that. (He claimed Blood on the Tracks was based on Chekhov stories in his autobiography, for example) In Bob’s typical style this isn’t a strict historical account, mixing fact and fiction by name-checking “Leo” (Leonardo di Caprio) and making reference to the James Cameron film. Why? Well why not? Bob’s a storyteller but he tells them his own way, not necessarily the way they were. Anyway, regarding Tempest, I have to say it’s not the masterpiece everyone appeared to be expecting, but certainly it has its moments. Stark scenes and imagery flit in and out of the verses, from the sleeping watchman, unaware of the Titanic’s imminent demise, (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) to the friends spending their last moment gambling to the fighting brothers, the fear of death revealing their basest instincts. Although this story is a familiar one, and the song is horribly in need of an edit, (45 verses long! Some albums have less verses than that) perhaps some of Dylan’s most poetic lyrics are contained within, none less than the following: “Jim Bradley smiled,/He never learned to swim/Saw the little crippled child/And he gave his seat to him./He saw the starlight shining,/Streamin’ from the east,/Death was on the rampage/But his heart was now at peace.”
Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is Dylan’s good natured but sadly misfired tribute to John Lennon: Roll on John. Again, why his Bobness should choose this particular time or album to write a tribute to Lennon is anyone’s guess, but who are we to question? As much as I want to love it, I’m afraid it’s not possible. His singing, surprisingly solid through much of the album, (his voice has of course been shredded for years, but that doesn’t mean he can’t sing: when it comes to interpreting songs he has few equals) is fairly off here. Musically it’s among the least engaging on the album, the odd rhyme scheme makes you think it doesn’t rhyme half the time, and the Beatles references are sadly not very cleverly done. “Slow down, you’re moving way too fast/Come together right now over me,” seriously Bob? That’s just a direct quote thrown in there. Given the masterful poetry of the previous two pieces this feels like such a let down. I don’t think I’d be so annoyed if this wasn’t the closing track; it’s not terrible, but to end the album on it sours its taste for me. If the album had been reordered somewhat and ended on Tin Angel, it would leave a much stronger lasting impression: sadly for me what remains is that of a missed opportunity to make Tempest a true classic. It’s scattered with rolicking tunes, painful ballads, bloody scenes and bitter endings, but is sadly prevented from attaining classic status by a few misfires right at the end – not drastic misfires, but enough to stop Tempest creeping into the upper echleons of Dylan’s work. It’s a solid album – nay, a brilliant one, his best since “Love And Theft” in 2001, but it just lacks that little something: sharpness, focus, editing or whatever. His bell still rings alright. Sometimes it just rings a little too long.