Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album is a sublimely dark ride for anyone willing to buy a ticket. “Tempest” (Columbia) is ruggedly poetic, self-indulgent, cryptic, and vitriolic.
Mortality has always been a major theme of Dylan’s fifty-year career. Dylan’s recent renaissance of well-received recordings — “Love and Theft” (‘01), “Modern Times” (‘06) and “Together Through Life” (‘09) — contains a sense of urgency sparked by a line from the song “Not Dark Yet” from Dylan’s Grammy Award-winning triumph “Time Out of Mind” (’97) — “It’s not dark yet/But it’s getting there.”
Longtime Dylan collaborators Charlie Sexton (guitar) and David Garnier (bass) are joined here by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (guitar, accordion, violin) and others to render a rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues dirge composed on scorched earth following a Pyrrhic victory. The souls of the dead rise from the ground in a spirit dance that transfixes the listener, and the musicians all play with mud on their boots.
“Duquesne Whistle,” describes a train ushering the narrator to the beyond in a smoky honky-tonk rhythm. “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing/Blowing like it’s gonna kill me dead.” The line “Blowing like she's at my chamber door,” recalls Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” The raven, rapping at the chamber door, is death. But the final judgment does not appear completely dire. “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling/Must be the mother of our Lord,” is delivered in Dylan’s signature growl. The music bounces along in an almost cheerful manner and makes the song into a wistful contemplation of death.
The bluesy waltz “Soon After Midnight” is a typical Dylan exercise in ambiguity. Is the narrator a hopeless romantic? “I've got a date with a fairy queen.” Or is he a stalker looking to murder a rival? “My heart is cheerful/It's never fearful/I've been down on the killing floors.”
“Narrow Way” is an up-tempo country/rock tune that references the War of 1812. “Ever since the British/burned the White House down/There's a bleeding wound/in the heart of town.” Other lines such as “If I can’t work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday” and “It’s a long road/It’s a long and narrow way,” seem to encompass the convoluted state of today’s political atmosphere. As with many songs here the music has a way of giving grim subject matter a wink and a grin.
“Long And Wasted Years” is a tale of remorse. The narrator is bent on confession. “If I hurt your feelings, I apologize.” Some of the lines used in this song, particularly “Shake it up baby/Twist and shout,” are incongruous and perplexing and the mood here is like a drunken jab aimed at a roomful of ghosts
“Pay in Blood” is one of the album’s highlights. It is a twisted tale told by a bitter survivor. “I've been through hell, what good did it do?” The lyrics paraphrase Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “This is how I spend my days/I came to bury/not to praise.”
“Scarlet Town” is not a cover of Gillian Welch’s excellent far superior song of the same name, however the dark shadings of the lyrics share a mournful symmetry. Scarlet Town, in both cases, is not a place to hide from one’s fate. In Dylan’s interpretation, it signals, “the end is near.”
The melody of “Early Roman Kings” has a familiar chord progression borrowed from Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy.” The theme in Dylan’s song is once again mortality and hard times. “I ain't dead yet/My bell still rings,” Dylan croons despairingly. “They're peddlers and they're meddlers/They buy and they sell/They destroyed your city/They'll destroy you as well.” Was the songwriter reading up on Bain Capital when he wrote this?
“Tin Angel” is a meditation on murder and death involving a love triangle that could have been imagined by either H.P. Lovecraft or Poe. “She put the blade to her heart and she ran it through/All three lovers together in a heap/Thrown into the grave/forever to sleep.” Once again, Dylan offers no respite from murder, betrayal and dark obsessions of the heart
It takes a degree of stamina to sit through the 14-minute title tune, “Tempest.” The song concerns the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912; but it also strangely echo’s James Cameron’s film version of the event. If this is a grand metaphor about the demise of America, it certainly strains one’s patience. The alternate reality that Dylan has constructed here is like an interminable dream one is trying to wake up from. It may be the weakest cut on the disc, but it is not without humor or merit.
“Roll On John” is the best offering here and closes the album like the door of a funeral parlor after the mourners have left. It’s a moving tribute to John Lennon that contains many allusions to Lennon’s life and the Beatles. “I heard the news today, oh boy … Now the city’s gone dark/There is no more joy.” The chorus is like a prayer in stone. “Shine your light/move it on/you burn so bright/roll on John.” With this song, Dylan reminds the listener of just what a tragic event Lennon’s murder was over thirty years ago.
At 71, Dylan is one of the most respected songwriters in his profession and still going strong. This is another journey into the labyrinth of Dylan’s mind — and will do little to change the polarity between his hard-core fans and his skeptics. His response to critics (calling them “wussies and pussies” in a recent Rolling Stone interview) — concerned with his borrowings of lyrics and melodies; and his arcane references to events — is anything but contrite. The controversy surrounding his originality will never die and it will no doubt keep musicologists and lawyers busy for generations. If “Imitation is the highest form of flattery” as the designer Coco Chanel once said, then Dylan seems to have taken this sentiment to heart. If so, his musical cross-pollinations have produced some of the finest hybrids in popular music history.