[10 September 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Critics, fans, musicians, writers, musical historians—whoever else you might think to include—have spent decades studying and puzzling over Bob Dylan. Dylan as the unknowable, constantly shifting persona. Dylan of the slippery facts. There is both intrigue and frustration in this quest, in the idea of finding something of the man Robert Zimmerman in the mythology of Bob Dylan, or just figuring out what it is precisely that makes that mythology tick.
And as we dig into Dylan’s 35th studio album, Tempest, questions and mystery roil around these songs. There are rumors this is his last record, and—if true—then this must give us some stopping point, some bookend, shouldn’t it? Well, no, it doesn’t. In fact, it does something all the more strange: it sounds familiar. Like his past few albums, and especially 2009’s Together Through Life, these songs are not only inspired but trade in the nearly exact tones of Chess and Sun Records classics. Dylan is once again trading in a sort of musical nostalgia his snarling younger self might have scoffed at or downright scorned. Opener “Duquesne Whistle”, already charmingly old in its train tale, starts with the muffled twang of guitars that sound 50 years old. Of course, and herein lies the strength of the record, the guitars take on a bright distortion, a more modern crunch as the song kicks into gear.
And so while these songs revel in the past, they never feel dated. The blue-light shuffle of “Soon After Midnight” could be decades old, but the gauzy echo of the guitars feels both wholly of the moment and embedded deep in country-music tradition. “Narrow Way” revisits the country-blues from the first half of Bringing It All Back Home or all of Highway 61 Revisited, albeit in a smoother way. “Pay in Blood” marries soul thump with country dust, and the title track—a much talked-about telling of the sinking of the Titanic—is all mournful Celtic folk. So while this is right in the wheelhouse of Dylan’s past few albums, its more exploratory and playful than its predecessors.
It’s an album most lyrically connected to Time Out of Mind, though that album’s take on mortality feels far more somber. Tempest speaks often of death and loss, but mostly about a sort of blaze-of-glory end. That title, in fact, is not really a noun—as in a blustering storm—but a verb—as in, raise some damn hell while you can, young man. And while the rumors of the album’s violence have been somewhat exaggerated, the album has its share of blood and carnage. “Pay in Blood” finds Dylan revving up the vitriol, while he hears “politicians pumping out the piss” and “low cards are what [he’s] got” he assures us, even as those around drink drugged wine and fall into complacency, “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own.” He takes aim at the powers that be on “Early Roman Kings”, an inspired return to his younger, stranger lyricism. He spits about the “Early Roman kings in their shark-skin suits” and how “they destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well.” All Dylan has for your wounds “is a blood-clotted rag.”
It’s in these moments that we hear the unique fire of Tempest. After the sweet yesterday Together Through Life lived in, now Dylan seems to have caught more modern sights in his crosshairs, and his aim can still be deadly. There’s still a sweetness to parts of the record, like when Dylan seems honestly at a loss in “Soon After Midnight”, singing “I’m searching for phrases, to sing you praises.” There’s a more quiet regret on “Long and Wasted Years” over the simplest and most complicated of things: lost love.
But this is still Bob Dylan, and even if he’s tuned in to what’s going on, he’s getting at it in his own, stubborn anachronistic way. Much of the violence here comes in revisiting the murder ballad and other storytelling song structures. “Tin Angels” is full of betrayal and gun shots and stab wounds. “Scarlet Town” isn’t so much a murder ballad in its own right, but some sort of genesis story for the murder ballad, mapping out a town where nearly any murder put to song could have happened. If these song tropes seem old, Dylan comes at them with a freshness missing from his last record. There’s not so much reverence to the form, to handle it respectably, so we get Dylan playing the thieving gambler, or the murderer, or the randy man who will “take my head and bury it between your breasts.” For all the storming of the record, the way Dylan tempers it with his dark humor is what sells it.
And yet the title track tells us quite a bit about what Dylan seeks to do with his storytelling on Tempest, which is to say little outside of tell a story. The song, a long telling of the Titanic sinking, is subtly curious in its structure. In the first verse, we hear of “she told a sad, sad story” but we’re not quite sure who she is and she never comes back in the song, so this frame goes unresolved. The song itself is, like so many of these songs, narrative storytelling, and Dylan’s in masterful mode as he subtly shifts his tone in small, surprising moments.. There are allegorical ties you can make—the fighting between people in the middle of collective crisis, the watchman, who should see the trouble coming, “lay there sleeping”—but mostly Dylan is just weaving a convincing tale. The same way he does on “Scarlet Town” and “Tin Angel” and all over this record. The point, in all these cases, seems to be—first and foremost—the power of storytelling itself. It’s not (always) about digging into symbols or drawing lines to the real world. Sometimes Dylan just wants to draw you into his world and transfix you with a story.
To that end, Tempest is successful. Dylan’s band is more malleable than on other albums, but still takes the straight-up blues band approach and delivers it with all the lean power they can muster. Still, these songs with their narratives rely heavily on repetition—in this way, their long line of verses hearken back to the kinds of folk songs Dylan twisted in the early- to mid-‘60s—but that repetition, when played so straight, can wear out its welcome. “Scarlet Town” is good but trudges for too long over its seven-minute running time. “Tin Angel” feels the same way, luring us in with bloody details, but still running over nine minutes when it doesn’t really need to. Meanwhile, the sweet roll of seven minute closer “Roll on John” is brilliant, as is the dusty “Narrow Way” and even that 14-minute title track.
If it indulges in itself too much in moments, Tempest is still a great album, though not the late-career defining collection that early buzz claims. It’s as expansive as Time Out of Mind, though not as consistent. It’s got all the keen-eyed detail and earthly rasp of “Love and Theft”, but lacks that album’s emotional heft. This set does, however, trump the safe road traveled on Modern Times and Together Through Life, showing us, one more time, the myriad tricks up Dylan’s sleeve, and the knowing grins that come along with them. Tempest, finally, might remind you of the Shakespeare play of the same name, of Prospero in particular, who uses sorcery to conjure a storm, to shipwreck others on his isolated island. Dylan plays a similar trick here. For Prospero, though, the goal was revenge, to get back what was taken from him. For Dylan, he simply wants you in his world, to transfix you and leave you to wander around lost, marveling at the details, even while they don’t get you anywhere. Because getting anywhere isn’t the point, it’s just the moving on, once again, the sound of a train whistle in your ear, a town of sinners at your back, and no future in front of you but a repetition of the past.