Album Review, Bob Dylan, Tempest

13 Jan

So I was all in an ecclesiastical “there’s nothing new under the sun” mood, looking for a new album that had some heft, but unfortunately most new artists are focused on youtube singles and such, and while there’s many pretty albums out there, there’s not many that have much heft.  I’m not saying that this is a terrible thing overall (think of all those dreadful drawn out CDs of the 90’s-2000’s that really should have been shorter), but sometimes when I get a yen for something, I just can’t be stopped.

Fortunately I decided to try out Dylan’s newest album, Tempest.  I am so happy that he remains a creative force after all these years and after so many of his contemporaries have long stopped even attempting to make anything new, much less relevant.  And there’s another thing for Dylan, since his music has always been written for a voice that is supposed to be world-weary and wise, it’s not like aging is much of an issue.   His voice has deepened to a sort of weathered grumble which fits this album completely.

Duquesne Whistle opens up like a warm and welcome intro to some old-time music hour you’d find on some way at the end of the dial AM Radio channel back in the day.  The odd thing is that this song opens up thinking of endings–talking about the final run of a train, starting a lot of questioning as to whether Dylan meant this to be his last album release.  (He denied it, but Dylan is nothing but straightforward in any of his dealings.)  It’s also an entry to another world, filled with jukebox tunes, and night people, and music that is old-timey, beautiful and sad.

So “Soon after Midnight” is a sort of drunken waltz through Desolation Row, a kinder place now that has had its edges worn down over time, that just might have a touch of magic about it, including references to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Narrow Way” references Odysseus, but this time his woman is not quite so faithful, it’s a familiar sort of song from Dylan who has many songs heaping scorn on one lover or another, and there’s some vague political statements here as well.  It’s always hard to say what these things mean, is he singing to America, to his audience, to the world?  Who knows, besides the fact that he is pushing on, well worn, but still red-blooded and living.

“Long and Wasted Years” is the opposite, where Dylan as cowboy stops by an old lover and admits some regrets.  He sets up the scenario perfectly, talking to someone he was once in love with, desperate for connection and a listening ear, not necessarily to settle down, but to check in.  “So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years.”

“Pay In Blood” is a rant against the swindlers of the world.  There’s not many people other than Dylan that can get away with a string of insults in a song like this.  He’s also self-aware enough to have a slightly ironic stance as he sings this, bellowing might feel good, but it won’t make the world free of the swindlers in it.   He wants justice for the people in power that have harmed so many that they were supposed to be taking care of.

We find Dylan in “Scarlet Town” a place of beauty and threat, definitely not a safe place–a place made for fighting, a place where you can only depend on yourself.  It really seems like an allegorical place, the sort of place with no real rules, and so there’s a sense of chaos always around the corner.  The imagery where flowers and graveyards and whores and saints all are near each other show how there’s a lack of boundaries here, therefore the fighting.

“Early Roman Kings” is an indictment of those in power (again) comparing modern politicians with the leaders of early Rome.    He has an Old Testement prophet sort of way of speaking, pointing his finger at those who do wrong and threatening them by saying he will act like them if pushed hard enough.  It sounds like it would be preachy, and it is in a way, but what Dylan is saying over and over again is that he’s not talking about days gone by, he’s talking about now, and his words need to be taken in today’s context.  That’s part of his point in Tempest, is to show how the old complaints, the old songs, are about things we go through up through this day, combining the old with the new to inform his audience.  That’s why there’s all the literary references, that’s also why he’s talking like a man towards the end of his road, he’s the wild-eyed prophet.

“Tin Angel” is the same sort of murder-ballad that as been sung since the beginning of America, and perhaps before.    Dylan brings it up do a point of absurdist humor, particularly when the woman and her two lovers all start talking to each other (before killing each other), it’s like listening to an old version of a soap opera.  What’s particularly interesting is that in this tragedy, every person seemed to deserve it (insofar that anybody deserves to be killed in murders of passion.)

“Tempest” is a huge song about the sinking of the Titanic.  Here the Titanic might be a symbol of hubris, but it’s certainly a symbol of the certain death that awaits all of us, and seems to reflect on society’s reaction to that.  Don’t some people spend life dreaming, or fighting, or making things, or falling in love?  And where do you fall in within this cast?    This is the one song that does go on a mite long for my tastes.

And finally Dylan closes with “Roll on John” his epitaph for John Lennon.  The question that comes up (a little) is why bring this up now, more than 30 years after his death?  It’s easier to think of this as a drunken tribute to a fellow traveler at the end of a night, a tribute that is half sung to Lennon and half sung to Dylan himself, that ends in a mixed up  jumble of lines of classic poetry.

What I love about this album is that it really sets its music as an intimate experience between the listener and Dylan–nobody else can have an album where it’s like the singer says to you, hey we’re going to have an experience, a sort of honky-tonk juke joint experience, of drinking beer and singing, and telling tales, and we’ll fight dragons, and hear about murders, and complain about women.

Gotta say, Dylan, I’m proud that you can still pull it off after all this time.


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