I’m staying up late
And I’m making amends
While the smile from heaven descends
If love is a sin and beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful
In their time
Can anyone remember the last time there was so much hype and publicity surrounding a new Bob Dylan album? The ominously titled Tempest is his 35th collection to hit the record stores, 50 years after his self-titled debut came out in 1962, and in the weeks prior to its release, critics almost universally began to sing its praises in advance of the public hearing a single note. Some, like Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore have gone so far as to venture that Tempest may be the greatest album of Dylan’s long career.
Dylan fans can be a strange lot, with many conjecturing that as The Tempest was the title of Shakespeare’s last play, it may also indicate that it is the last time the septuagenarian singer will enter the recording studio. Whether this is true or not, or whether Tempest ranks in the very top of Dylan’s pantheon of albums doesn’t really matter very much; those kind of accolades or inquiries have always rested uncomfortably with Dylan, and this time around they’re probably beside the point.
But, it is certainly safe to say that Tempest—even in the company of other great recent albums like Modern Times and Love and Theft—is one of the most cohesive, musically and lyrically intense records he’s put together in years.
Tempest is an album that works on many levels. Taken as sound or aural sculpture, the songs take the listener through a dark ramble through the back roads of American popular music. Every musical phrase, note, carries something that suggests more than itself. Each melody is weighed down with memory, reminding the listener of real and imagined pasts, old struggles, hinting that there’s a world rapidly slipping through our fingers, if it’s not already long gone. It’s easy to hear the echoes of Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Sonny Boy Williamson and ancient Childe ballads from another fallen empire running through Tempest. But, these snatches of melody weren’t conjured to provide light entertainments or exercises in nostalgia. They’re imbued with intimations of mortality, backward glances and all different kinds of summing up.
Dylan’s voice sounds more ragged than ever, yet it remains an astounding instrument that can communicate subtle shifts of emotion. There is a kind of perverse joy in every note Dylan sings as he delightfully croons and mangles his way through the lyrics of each of these songs. What he may have lost in range, he more than makes up for with the nimble, winking playfulness that dances underneath the wheezy, rusty bellows his voice has become.
From the opening notes of “Duquesne Whistle” with its Hoagy Carmichael swing and film noir imagery to the final thrum of “Roll on John,” Dylan’s surprisingly powerful remembrance of John Lennon, Tempest presents an often unrelenting cycle of graphic, dense and sweeping songs. They’re like snapshots that present a specific moment in time but are not held in by them. So, on “Duquesne Whistle,” like so many of the other tracks on Tempest, the images are fleeting, yet they send us back into Dylan’s lexicon of concerns—regrets about women, mistaken gestures, misunderstood words and movements in the night where sorrow and regret are the price of searching for solace.
If these themes sound familiar to old fans, that’s because without seeming overly conscious about it, Dylan’s recorded 10 new songs that encapsulate and revisit many of the recurring motifs and approaches to storytelling that he’s experimented with over the decades. The mystical lover Dylan croons to on “Soon After Midnight” wouldn’t have felt uncomfortable if she’d been wooed with the “Queen Anne’s lace” imagery of seduction and regret that filled Desire. The jaded flea market poetry of “Brownsville Girl” is updated in the spoken word of “Long and Wasted Years,” but the resignation and despair communicated by the narrator hasn’t lightened up a single bit as he’s still shielding himself with the same intermittent impatience, false anger and avoidance of truth. In “Scarlet Town,” Dylan reminds his listeners that religion, economics and politics are just words and that in the end everything comes down to how people see their way through their lives while simply “yearning for a place where the sky is clear.”
The impact and resonance of the title song recalls “When the Ship Comes In” from The Times They Are A-Changin’ and stretches even further back into Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.” Joining an age-old cadre of bad luck sea stories, through a series of off-kilter and uneasy characters who could have walked right out of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” or “Black Diamond Bay,” Dylan indicates that we haven’t learned much from Noah and Jonah or the Lusitania and Titanic and that sometimes it’s a better idea to stay on dry land. “Tin Angel” may very well be the best ballad Dylan has ever written. Essentially an update of “Raggle Taggle Gypsies” and “Jack Orion,” the old tale of experience giving way to impotence, as the value of love is measured in the heat of the moment and the wages of sin always bring death, never gets old. With its graphic evocations of the pain of aging and living with the curse of a virile mind in decaying body, “Tin Angel” is one of the most visceral, bare songs in quite some time.
As with so many of Dylan’s songs, it’s tempting to project the words of the narrator of “Tin Angel” onto the artist himself. The pervasive imagery of world weariness and having outlived one’s time, yet still believing in love while raging against the dying of the light are inescapable when listening to these songs. They could not have been written by a young person, and one wonders what people who haven’t been around the block a couple of times, worn the tires down to the rims and drunk the well dry will make of this music. Will it be out of reach, or will it perhaps offer a kind of voyeuristic window that the young and unscarred will find appealing?
There’s nothing on Tempest to indicate that it was recorded to please anyone but Dylan himself. It presents a rambling conversation of free associations, snatches of books he’s read, things he’s seen, people he’s met, yet it remains surprisingly tight and focused, and it never goes off the rails into self-indulgence or trivial drama. Who but Dylan would record a song like “Roll on John” that pays tribute to an old friend and colleague fully 30 years after his murder? There is no need to go into how such a song could go terribly, terribly wrong, but it never sounds trite and always comes off as starkly sincere. There is a sense when he sings of one of the few people on the planet who went through anything like he has, a person whose fate could easily have been his own, that he means and feels every word. By borrowing from Beatles and Lennon songs with lines like “I read the news today oh boy,” “come together over me” and “shine on,” “Roll on John” provides a surprisingly poignant and powerful ending to Tempest and reminds us that—rock star or thief—we all go to the same place in the end.
Whether Tempest is Dylan’s best album or not is, as stated right at the beginning of this review, not really even worth considering. How do you compare this album to Bringing it All Back Home, Blonde On Blonde or Blood On The Tracks? You don’t. Each of these records was a reflection of a particular moment in time, and they remain perfect. What is amazing is that after making music for more than half a century, Dylan’s still engaged or has engaged again in creating personal, biting, irreplaceable music. Tempest is one hell of a fiery concoction, a swirling inferno of love gone wrong that always holds out the possibility of redemption coming between falling from the saddle and hitting the ground. There aren’t many records like this one, and if you give it time and it catches you, you’ll probably still be listening to it when the deal goes down and your own ship comes in.