Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album, Tempest, was released this week. And he’s done it again. I don’t just mean he’s released another great album. He’s trod new ground here, at 71 years old. And this is a guy who has trod a lot of ground, from the acoustic beginnings of “Blowin’ in the Wind” to the groundbreaking rock of “Like A Rolling Stone.” Then he went country with Nashville Skyline, went gypsy for the Rolling Thunder Review, found Jesus with Slow Train Coming, fell into 80s pop rock, then went back to his roots in the 90s. He’s even dipped into Christmas and Tex-Mex flavors with Christmas in the Heart and Together Through Life.
But starting in 2001 with “Love and Theft,” Dylan has taken us on a cavalcade of journeys (musically and lyrically) on each album. On Modern Times, for example, you have to love the swinging bounce of “Spirit on the Water” planted next to the sliding blues of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Tempest is no different, and it’s almost a completely new flavor of songwriting, which would be crazy to say about any other songwriter who has been around for as long as Dylan has.
While it is playing I like to imagine Tempest has got a red thread running through it from song to song. Every song on here has some sort of death in it. But it doesn’t bog you down. Bob shows here that songs about death, and actually death itself, aren’t always this tragic thing. It can be funny or ironic, it’s clever, it’s sad, tragic, heroic, just, unjust, random. On Tempest we find a 14 minute ballad about the Titanic that leads right in to one of the most poignant tributes to John Lennon ever written. Two tragedies, one where we’re used to seeing the big picture and forgetting the little ones, and one where Dylan lets us look past a singular tragedy (John’s murder) and see the larger one (how tragedy transformed his life). And we get everything else here too (well, maybe not everything, but a good taste of it).
Sets the tone for the album nicely. A nice jaunt down the road to the train station turns a little sinister, but you wouldn’t know it by the music, which swings along enjoyably. But this train isn’t bound for any place fun. The sky’s gonna blow apart and maybe the lovestruck singer too.
“Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?
Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart
You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going
You’re like a time bomb in my heart.”
Soon After Midnight
Bob has his crooning voice back for this one. Anyone who says he can’t sing can have a listen to this one. A tender expression of love for a woman who’s probably playing a bit hard to get. But again, Dylan doesn’t take us to a resolution (positive or negative). Instead we’re wondering who these people are that Dylan has it out for. Wait…did you just hide a bloodbath inside a love ballad? Yes, I think you did.
Who’s ever heard of him?
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.”
Sounds like something some outlaw or pirate would sing after his latest foray into thievery. This is the standard blues number Dylan usually puts in slot three in concert or on his latest albums. Here the red thread is more obvious. Not hidden behind a love ballad or train song. This is pure gunsmoke. A lover and a fighter who goes wherever the trouble is. He’s gonna get what he wants.
“This is hard country to stay alive in
Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin
I’m armed to the hilt and I’m struggling hard
You won’t get out of here unscarred.”
Long and Wasted Years
This is one of the funnest tracks on the album, which is crazy because it’s the final monologue of a man who realizes that the relationship with the woman he loves was/is a complete waste of time. It’s a plea, it’s a realization, it’s that last thread being cut, that last conversation that admits everything is lost while trying to keep a door open. That door slams shut by the end of this one.
“I think that when my back was turned
The whole world behind me burned.”
Pay in Blood
The opening chords of this song remind me remotely of “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread.” But it quickly grooves into a growling threat of a song. It is almost spine-tingling when you think about what he means when he sings: “I pay in blood…but not my own!” There’s something sinister there, but again, the red thread goes along with something else. Some sort of cracked justice is on the prowl. Adultery, lies, deceit, and politics are running around, probably with their heads cut off.
“Our nation must be saved and freed
You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?”
Getting the title from Barbara Allen’s home, Sweet William-O is here too. This is a dark narrative from somewhere that the sun don’t shine. Someone got away from a really bad situation, and you don’t want to go back there. Scarlet Town is probably one of the places they escape to Desolation Row from. Nice banjo here from Mr. Herron.
“Put your heart on a platter and see who will bite.”
Early Roman Kings
Slow blues number accented by David Hidalgo’s accordion. This one would be right at home on Together Through Life. This is the lowpoint on the album for me. Sounds good musically, just not my thing.
“All the early Roman Kings, in their shark skin suits, bow ties and buttons, high top boots.”
Our journey takes us to a straight-laced revenge ballad. Bob weaves a twisted Romeo/Juliet-type tale. Nobody’s getting out of this one alive.
“Go fetch me my coat and my tie
And the cheapest labour that money can buy
Saddle me up my buckskin mare
If you see me go by, put up a prayer.”
This is the crown jewel. The 14 minute Titanic waltz that serves as a microcosm for the whole album. (Works out nice since this song and the album share a title). Dylan trots out a cast of characters that all face death in different ways. There’s a bishop who goes to help, gamblers that keep gambling, a guy named Leo who falls in love (!), and people saving and taking life. Like 9/11 stories today, it’s a look into a “sad, sad story” that can’t be told from one point of view. You get to taste the tragedy, feel the splashing water, and see the choices that the people make on board. We’re all on a Titanic of sorts. How will we live in the face of mortality?
“He saw the starlight shining,
Streaming from the East
Death was on the rampage
But his heart was now at peace.”
Roll On John
Once again, leave it to Dylan to follow the best Titanic song of all time with a tribute to John Lennon. Listening to this, we’ve traveled from fictional depictions of death, to real life mortality (the Titanic) to the passing of someone who was Dylan’s close friend. This is the most personal song here. I think about the scene from Eat the Document where Dylan and Lennon are riding in a car together. Dylan understands John, and it’s nice to hear about his life from someone besides a Beatle or Yoko. Dylan knows what the magnifying glass of fame can do, and he’s lived to tell. Sadly, John did not.
“Roll on, John, roll through the rain and snow
Take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam
They’ll trap you in an ambush before you know
Too late now to sail back home”
Nice work Bob! Here’s to more great music!