9.6 / 10



Bob Dylan’s newest masterpiece Tempest is his best record since Blood On The Tracks

“Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’, sounding like it’s on a final run.” Bob Dylan sings on record opener “Duquesne Whistle” from the enigmatic bard’s 35th studio album Tempest. But could that lyric and the album title be an omen? The world began to over-analyze and scrutinize this as they usually do with any new Dylan record. People wondered if this would be his final studio album as a tip of the cap to William Shakespeare who called his final play The Tempest. Dylan dispelled those rumors to The Rolling Stone as merely a coincidence, even citing Shakespeare’s play has “The” in front of it. How foolish we are! Quite the opposite, Dylan seems like he’s not even close to running out of steam as he conjures Old Testament wrath before you even listen to Tempest. Simply the word tempest is defined as a violent windstorm or tumult and that was probably his idea all along as this is Dylan’s darkest record ever. Dylan convened with his ace touring band earlier this year in Jackson Browne’s recording studio in Santa Monica, California and once again produced the album himself under his pseudonym Jack Frost. Dylan’s brilliance and his creativity haven’t diminished at all, and the result is another modern day masterpiece as astonishing in scope as any record he’s ever done.

Dylan remains a musical chameleon, out of time, out of step. He was once considered the cutting edge of Rock & Roll at the zenith of his powers and prowess in the mid-60’s, a pioneer forging bravely and boldly into new frontiers fueled by uncanny genius, chaos, and amphetamines. It may be a little startling however for people just being introduced to his modern recordings. His new sonic direction can actually be traced back to two overlooked instances. His two modest covers albums of old-time folk and blues standards with As Good As I’ve Been To You and World Gone Wrong released in the early 1990’s. Ever since “Love and Theft” this has been thoroughly emphasized by Dylan and he has been retreating back into the mist with the ghosts of early forms of American music, a melting pot of influences. Some long-forgotten, whether it be Jazz, Western-swing, folk, parlor & murder ballads, blues, or the exciting primal dawn of Rock & Roll from the 1950’s. Dylan rediscovered his muse with the cacophonous eclectic roots of American music giving his career a much needed rejuvenation. His ventures into the past have revitalized his career and he owes a great debt to his latter-day Renaissance to a sound that’s familiar yet refreshing.

Then there’s the voice. His voice is as raspy and rugged as ever, there’s no denying that. Many people listening may say his voice is shot. But chances are if you came to Bob Dylan looking for a “conventional” singing voice, then Bob Dylan’s universe probably never has, and never will suit you. If you’re looking for that, you can go buy those Mp3s (Or steal them more likely) from American Idol “talents” with their music and radio-ready voices devoid of any real substance.  What people fail to realize is Dylan can still deliver a line with such phrasing and inflection that it’s more visceral and can cut deeper than any pop star crooner. His voice is a striking resemblance to legendary blues shaman Howlin’ Wolf more than anything else. His weathered voice, battered by the elements suits the abundant decay of morality and society within the world of Tempest. Dylan plays the prophet of doom barking fire and brimstone from his eschatological pulpit. Nothing’s been settled, this is a terrifying world Dylan paints with the brush strokes of a true master.

The aforementioned “Duquesne Whistle” begins with delicate, almost Caribbean-flavored guitars like they’re gently humming through an old Crosley cathedral-style radio before giving way to the jitterbug boxcar shuffle of his band. The song isn’t as raucous as more recent album openers like “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”, “Thunder on the Mountain”, or “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”. Rather, it’s a long lost train-line song with a carefree arrangement and it swings like a cut from “Love and Theft”.  It’s the perfect opener for the record as it sounds like the beginning of the journey that is Tempest and a great juxtaposition from what’s to come. This is the start of the ride on the rails with Dylan serving as the conductor. “Duquesne Whistle” dabbles in deception as the locomotive winds around the bends there are ominous clouds looming down the line. Dylan actually co-wrote the song with the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter and they show the early elements of darkness as Dylan bellows in his signature gravelly howl that this whistle is “Blowing like it’s gon’ kill me dead” as the train passes through another no good town. Make no mistake about it the music for this opener really stakes the claim. Dylan allows his band ample breathing room as they play with reassured charismatic cool and authenticity that’s rare in music these days. Dylan would scoff at the idea of ProTools, if he’s even heard of ProTools.

This is the case for the entire record. It’s the most musically diverse Dylan’s made perhaps ever. Certainly since his career rebirth beginning with Time Out Of Mind. “Soon After Midnight” is a lovely lilting number akin to “Spirit On The Water” from Modern Times that at first feels like a gentle swooning serenade but inauspicious nature creeps in again as Dylan sings that he’s been down on the “Killing floors” and threatens to drag the corpse of a character named Two-timing Slim through the mud. “Narrow Way” is a rousing roadhouse rocker that shakes all the dust off the Old Guard and where the body count on Tempest really begins to pile up. “There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town” from the British burning the White House down as Dylan proclaims, “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”. It’s a rarity on this record but Dylan adds a little humor here talking of his “Heavy-stacked woman” and that he’s going to have to bury his face between her breasts. “Long And Wasted Years” is a heartbreaking ballad of a deteriorated relationship amongst other things and recollections of better days from the past. Dylan’s destruction becomes sensationalistic as he proclaims, “I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned”. He even drops an autobiographical line yelping, “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/ There’s secrets in them that I can’t disguise”. He’s certainly playing it close to the chest for a man that’s spent a large portion of his career shrouded behind the veil of Ray-Ban Wayfarers and Aviator sunglasses.

“Pay In Blood” features Dylan singing in perhaps an all-time scorched-earth venomous snarl with lava-like phlegm. The music is far more deceptive with the warm twang of pedal steel guitar and a spirited marching piano. The lyrical attack is a brutal savaging however, an evisceration. Dylan slings loathsome lines like, “I got something in my pocket, make your eyeballs swim/ I got dogs could tear ya, limb from limb” and declares, “Legs and arms and body and bone/ I pay in blood, but not my own”. Then he finally pulls you close and says in your ear, “You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you?” as he sticks a blade into your guts and twists. After all, he “Came here to bury, not to raise”. When Dylan draws a line in the sand with his sword, you want to be on his side.

(Darkness past the break of noon: Bob Dylan’s Tempest)

“Scarlet Town” is the name of the town borrowed from the traditional folk song “Barbara Allen”. You can picture “The Man In The Long Black Coat” from Oh Mercy as a wraith prowling the streets of Scarlet Town as a forlorn banjo trots and a fiddle weeps in the background.  It’s a town populated by nefarious beggars, insidious misfits and lascivious maidens. It feels like a biblical overcast of locusts rolling into the neighborhoods as it teeters, trapped in purgatory between utopia and dystopia with the end being near yet it’s also where the seven wonders of the world dwell with “The evil and the good, living side by side” in Scarlet Town. The “Mannish Boy” bluesy romp of “Early Roman Kings” is dominated by David Hidalgo’s accordion pumping Tejano ventilator blues into its lungs, similar to “My Wife’s Home Town” from Together Through Life. Dylan tells of the early Roman kings as infamous tyrants, “They’re lecherous and treacherous”, but looking so good as monsters in their shark skin suits, bow-ties, high-top boots, wearing fancy gold rings with all the women going crazy for them. Dylan wails with a craggy hubris, “I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings/ I keep my fingers crossed like the early Roman kings”. Dylan bangs his gavel unapologetically singing, “I can strip you of life, strip you of breath/ Ship ya down, to the house of death”. And when you try to barter for your freedom, his reply? “Ding dong daddy, you’re comin’ up short”.

The nine-minute “Tin Angel” may be the most merciless and callous song on the record. A hypnotic, churning murder ballad that could be from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ album Murder Ballads. It’s that malignant. It’s a brooding nocturnal saunter similar to “Ain’t Talkin’”. “He was a man of strife, a man of sin/ I cut him down and I threw him to the wind” flows with furious contempt. You can picture the moonlight creaking through the room illuminating thick pools of blood in an eerie shimmer where the three-way murder-suicide happens in the climax. “All three lovers together in a heap/ Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep”, the gruesome scene and dark recesses of humanity will resonate with you long afterward, as grainy and grizzled as “The Ballad Of Hollis Brown”.

The centerpiece of the album is the mammoth title track “Tempest”. Draped over it, an elegant waltzing Irish melody reworked from an earlier version of the tale of the Titanic by The Carter Family. It’s as majestic and hallowed as some of Dylan’s latter day epics like “‘Cross The Green Mountain” and “Red River Shore”. Historical accuracy is irrelevant here Dylan has done this before many times. Take his cut off Bringing It All Back Home “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” as he dreams he’s on the Mayflower, but there’s also a pay phone in there, and he alludes to a truck when he apparently meets Columbus himself. It’s cinematic and gargantuan, as bold as James Cameron’s film adaptation of the Titanic. Even Leonardo DiCaprio pops up a couple of times as “Leo” before being badly wounded and losing his mind, supposedly meeting the same demise in the icy waters of the Atlantic as he did in the movie. “Tempest” is a lyrical tour de force, a staggering 14-minute 45-verse odyssey with no chorus. Line after devastating line pouring from Dylan’s mouth, a marathon of carnage of the legendary Maritime disaster. Leo first discovers something’s awry when he gets to a flooded quarterdeck and there’s “Dead bodies already floating in the double-bottomed hull” and the engine has exploded. Later on we find chaos spreading as “Brother rose up ‘gainst brother, in every circumstance/ They fought and slaughtered each other, in a deadly dance”. Elsewhere, “There were traitors there were turncoats, broken backs and broken necks”. Ultimately the death toll rings out a final tally, “When the reaper’s task had ended, 1600 had gone to rest/ The good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best”. There’s also something to be said about the character simply called The Watchman, dreaming of foreboding visions of the Titanic sinking. Is he simply a restless passenger denying his harrowing dreams? Is it God or some other deity? Or is he the same man who was once a youthful 24-year-old peering his weary head out too far on Desolation Row 47 years ago? We’ll never know for sure as the final image is him seeing the Titanic sinking “Into the deep blue sea”.

The closer “Roll On John” is a slight reprieve from all of the malevolence nearly bubbling over that came before. It serves as a gorgeous paean for John Lennon. A man up until his assassination was seen as an equal to Dylan, but more importantly to Dylan, he was a friend. Even though it’s nearly 32 years later, Dylan still laments and grieves over the loss of his beloved peer and time passed hasn’t diluted the power of song. Dylan sings in a smoldering sorrowful rasp as a graceful liquid organ courses through the heart of the song. There’s still the death rattle lingering that plagues the rest of the album with detailed accounts of Lennon’s murder. Dylan even alludes to a few of The Beatles’ songs written by Lennon including, “The Ballad of John and Yoko”, “A Day In The Life” and “Come Together”. Dylan stated that he originally set out to make an album of religious songs, but the end result was the turbulent Tempest. “Roll On John” is an ethereal hymn however that is a successful venture into a spiritual sound, religious intentions or not.

The lyrics on Tempest have an incredible range from tender beauty to horrific apocalyptic visions. His wit and metaphors are sharp with deadly force, leaving naysayers laid low. Dylan’s Tempest isn’t only dark, it’s defiantly dark. The prevailing theme is Bob Dylan is a survivor. He’s walked down some of the nastiest roads and he’s still standing. Dylan says it best in “Pay In Blood” as he roars, “How I made it back home, nobody knows/ Or how I survived so many blows”. Dylan’s last 15 years of mind-boggling success make the 20 uneven and misguided years that preceded it all seem like a ruse. Only one person knows that for sure, and only one person probably ever will, Bob Dylan. His accomplishments and accolades are numerous since the turn of the Millennium alone: An Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, New York Times Best Seller, Pulitzer Prize winner, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom to name a few. Add to that his continuing indomitable Never Ending Tour and incredible body of work since 1997 with Time Out Of Mind, “Love & Theft”, Modern Times, Tell Tale Signs, Together Through Life, and now his best of the bunch in Tempest. Dylan is a national treasure, the most important, profound, and influential musical artist in American history. A new Bob Dylan record isn’t just another release, it’s an event. Dylan is seen as a preacher and prophet in millions of people’s eyes, just as holy as any religious denomination, perhaps holier. Oh preacher, what tricks have you yet to show us? What tales have you yet to tell us? And we sit and once again listen in starry-eyed wonderment and sheer amazement.

(Bob Dylan and his band)

  1. Duquesne Whistle
  2. Soon After Midnight
  3. Narrow Way
  4. Long And Wasted Years
  5. Pay In Blood
  6. Scarlet Town
  7. Early Roman Kings
  8. Tin Angel
  9. Tempest
  10. Roll On John

(EDIT: I initially check marked the top tracks on this record. Looking back, it was wrong, every track is great)

By Matt Ireland


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