Bob Dylan – Tempest
Jeff knows I’m not a Dylan person, but anyone with a basic working knowledge of rock music is familiar with some aspect of his career and impact. It’s been years since I cared enough to listen to one of his albums in its entirety because the man responsible for expanding rock’s vocabulary with topical introspection has mumbled through wheezy Americana torture ballads much of the past couple of decades.
The first four tracks of Tempest don’t do all that much to sway that. “Duquesne Whistle” is in dire need of a Van Dyke Parks arrangement with its tin pan calliope content. Though some might hear the low rumble of a drawbridge in the distance of “Soon After Midnight” as a segue from Midwest Everly Brothers beginnings to Dylan’s own earmarked influence on country-folk, there’s no dynamic beyond his two-dimensional delivery pattern. At this point – track three, “Narrow Way” – the lines become blurred to where his voice sounds better than it has in years and there exists an inkling of the old revelatory cynicism before “Long and Wasted Years” comes across like a housewives’ novelty record on an LP by The Hombres!
Cut number five changes everything. “Pay in Blood” has that old Dylan scent and Studs Terkel work ethic displayed in its abrasive lyrics: “…legs and arms and body and bone/ I’ll pay in blood, but not my own… I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone/ I’ll pay in blood, but not my own.” Religious, elusive and burly, these are some of his most abrasive lyrics since Blonde on Blonde.
But perhaps the song that does it best for me is “Scarlet Town,” with its alluded-to fear of his Midwestern roots coming across like a hobo campfire recollection that’s come full circle from the bucolic monotony of being “stuck inside of Mobile.” “In Scarlet Town you fight your father’s foes/ Up on the hill, a chill wind blows.” There’s a hint of Thornton Wilder as the poetic balladeer confesses, “In Scarlet Town, the skies are clear/ You wished to God that you stayed right here…”
“Early Roman Kings” talks of bowties and tails coming from the hills and cornfields, and could be said to pay honor to guys like Blind Lemon Jefferson and other inaugural bluesmen who influenced Woody Guthrie and ultimately laid the groundwork for Dylan. “Tin Angel” has apocalyptic western roundup inflections over a “Frankie & Johnny” confrontation between a prostitute and what she refers to as “a gutless ape with a worthless mind.” It’s that type of narrowing narrative that Dylan pulled from folk traditions early on.
“Tempest” is the 13-minute title track retelling of the sinking of the Titanic, and who besides Dylan would even attempt such a thing at this point much less add perspective to the event? He ties this peanut gallery opus to Book of Revelations metaphors without so much as a sweat just to show he still can.
The final track is “Roll On John,” which is obvious with lyrics declaring “I heard the news today, oh boy!” and “Slow down, you’re moving much too fast.”
As a rehearsal for retirement, Tempest is his fond remembrance of being able to pack readin’, writin’ and rhythm by the bootstraps and deliver them as the mouthpiece of a generation. He may not be able to go home again, but he doesn’t have to since his contribution resonates through the decades. But Bob Dylan has always been a 50/50 artist. Half prankster, half philosopher. The electric and the acoustic. The idiot wind and shelter from the storm.
Tempest succeeds tremendously in furthering the enigma.