Bob Dylan had an uneasy relationship with time. The scratchy guitar and scratchier vocals of his eponymous 1962 debut channeled earlier folk and blues artists Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly far more than the jangly-pop and youth-centered rock ‘n’ roll dominating the contemporary airwaves. The smart sideways glances and sardonic wit of his follow-up released a year later, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, later didn’t quite square with the image of a fresh-faced 23-year-old from Duluth, Minnesota. Even once Dylan had established himself, achieving legendary status and a devoted fanbase, he still managed to cut an awkward figure, unstuck in time. More like a wandering troubadour of the Old West, perhaps, or a bard of revolution and rebellion, than a 20th-century rock star.
The Dylan of 2012 differed greatly from the Dylan of 1963 or 1975. Don’t get me wrong, Tempest is still gloriously out of step with the sonic conventions of the day – Dylan was never going to ‘do a Bowie’ and release a drum and bass record – but its author seemed more grounded than before as if finally arriving at a time and place he’d long been moving toward. This is encapsulated in Dylan’s voice on the record – a new voice, different from the one heard on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, or Highway ‘61 Revisited (1965), John Wesley Harding (1967), or even Modern Times released only six years before. The new register that inhabited his work in this period was one he’d long yearned for. Always a limited and idiosyncratic vocalist, Dylan had finally perfected the bluesman growl he’d been pursuing for 50 years.
Surely, then, 2012 was a time of optimism for Dylan fans. New albums from their hero were becoming fewer and further between as the artist aged, so an upcoming release was something to get excited about. But this mood of optimism was tempered with concern.
For starters, the album’s title. What did it mean? Is it Tempest… like The Tempest from the early 1600s, among the final plays penned by Dylan’s literary hero, William Shakespeare? What about the rumored sonic and lyrical leanings emerging from the recording sessions? Dark. Death-obsessed. A ballad eulogizing one of Dylan’s dear departed friends, John Lennon? A quarter-hour sea shanty on the sinking of the Titanic? Ripples of panic spread across the fanbase. Was Tempest Dylan’s final record? Or, worse, was the artist hinting that he was not long for this world?
The album opener, “Duquesne Whistle”, blew many of these theories out of the water. A contender for the jauntiest tracks ever to feature on a Dylan record, “Duquesne Whistle” kicks off with a nostalgic guitar line that would not have been out of place in the speakeasies and juke joints of pre-war America, followed close behind by an old-time travellin’ song bassline that does not let up for five joyous minutes. If Dylan was saying his final goodbyes, as his most pessimistic fans feared, it seemed he was gonna have some fun with this farewell.
Such pessimism was overblown. Let’s not forget that this is Bob Dylan we’re talking about, and suggesting that a Dylan record might feature dark, death-obsessed songwriting is not so much a prediction as a statement of fact – he loves this stuff, and Tempest offered plenty of scope for rather less joyous exploration. As for the name of the record? Well, let’s ask the man himself.
“Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest”, Dylan told Andy Greene in a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone. “It wasn’t called just plain Tempest. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.”
We’ll delve further into the darker side of the record in a moment. Let’s consider what Tempest is ten years after its release. It’s certainly not a farewell from a beloved artist – Dylan has released three cover records and an original LP in the decade since Tempest‘s release and is still going strong on the road and in the studio in 2022.
If not a goodbye, how about a return to form after years in the wilderness? Well, not really. Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009) received solid reviews on release, and Dylan’s legendary status has never been in doubt. He’d had his duff LPs here and there – someone that prolific can’t always be perfect – but he’d hardly faded into obscurity. Is Tempest a canonical classic to stand alongside the likes of Highway ‘61 and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in the Dylan pantheon? Let’s not get silly. Tempest is a good record, but it would never be that good. The LP is perhaps the best of latter period Dylan, but those early and middle period records are far superior.
Does Tempest serve as a document of an artist growing into a new sound and a reframing of tried and tested themes at a new phase of life? This might be closer to the truth. As we look back at Tempest and its legacy ten years on, this sentiment stands out – Dylan here is an aged artist, yes, but not a finished one. Rather, he’s an artist reaching a milestone – 50 years on from his debut LP – and casting a critical eye over all that got him to that point.
Listening to Tempest requires – demands, even – patience, as its author unpicks and re-examines old ground. “Tin Angel”, for example, is a complex melodrama analyzing death, loyalty, and betrayal within a twisted narrative. In content and scope, it’s similar to “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts”, from 1975’s Blood on the Tracks. In aesthetics and tone, however, “Tin Angel” it’s a vast departure.
While “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts“ roars forward at a hell of a clip with its train whistle harmonica and urgent delivery, “Tin Angel” unspools over nine minutes of metronomic precision, more akin to a pony and trap navigating a frostbitten landscape than a runaway express train. What Dylan has lost in urgency, he makes up for with a thorough and methodical approach.
“Pay in Blood” and “Long and Wasted Years” are companion pieces, two sides of the same coin. “Long and Wasted Years” is reflective and melancholy – a philosophical appraisal of time lost and mistakes made. It doesn’t wallow nor celebrate; instead, it plays with more sophisticated emotions that feel like an expansion and updates on earlier tracks like “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright”. “Pay in Blood” finds Dylan in a combative mood, ready to scrap and fight with whatever breath he has left. The “wrongs” of “Pay in Blood” are not Dylan’s but someone else’s, most probably a politician or the broader political class in general. He’s ready to “stone you to death”, to set dogs that will “tear you limb from limb”, to “break your lousy head”, while he grinds [his] life out, steady and sure”.
While Dylan is reflective elsewhere on Tempest, “Pay in Blood” doubles down on the sense of anger and injustice that have characterized some of his more politically and socially engaged work like “Only a Pawn in Their Game” or” Oxford Town”, but adds even more venom and violence to the mix. Dylan is ready to reflect upon and re-appraise his career in Tempest, but he certainly won’t be bowing his head. He’ll “pay in blood”, he tells us, “but not my own”.
And then there’s “Tempest” itself; 13-minutes of balladry dedicated to the tragic sinking of the Titanic in 1912. This is where Dylan’s career-long obsessions with faith, futility, death, rebirth, love, and tragedy are played out in microcosm – although perhaps not so ‘micro’, this is a sprawling track after all – to a string-heavy soundtrack that recalls the famous and oft-mythologized band of musicians who played on while the great ship succumbed to the Atlantic. These strings differ greatly from those provided by the legendary “Scarlet Rivera” on 1976’s Desire. As with “Tin Angel”, Dylan strips away much of the urgency and pace of the soundtrack in “Tempest”, replacing it with something more somber – a lilting paean to the more than 1,500 people who lost their lives that night.
Dylan has been here before. He references the Titanic directly on “Desolation Row” (Highway 61 Revisted), and historical accounts told in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” (from 1963’s The Times They Are a-Changin’) or Hurricane (Desire) have always been part of Dylan’s repertoire. Only this time, it’s different – “Tempest”‘s story is not a slice of a documentary of true crime or history. Dylan is not so interested in grappling with the truth but is focused on delving into the mythology and folklore of this already well-documented event.
So we find John Jacob Astor among the lyrics, one of the Titanic’s real-life victims, and an old soldier named Wellington – a reference to the 1852 battleship HMS Duke of Wellington? – who seems to be engaged alongside unseen comrades against unseen enemies. There’s also Davey the Brothel Keeper, an Old West-type figure who seems to have come unfixed in space and time. Then, in an audacious touch of Brechtian drama, Dylan allows us to suspend disbelief no longer as he introduces us to “Leo” and his “sketchbook”, lifted directly from the 1997 blockbuster Titanic – fact and fantasy bleeding together with James Cameron’s film.
Following the threads back into Dylan’s earlier work, perhaps the most obvious comparison is with 1976’s “Black Diamond Bay” (Desire). Here, we are presented with the Soldier, the Desk Clerk, the Greek, the Soviet Ambassador, the Loser, the Tiny Man, and an enigmatic ‘She’, all of whom are engaged in the minutiae of their disintegrating lives while all hell is unleashed around them. In “Black Diamond Bay”, “the Loser finally [breaks] the bank in the gambling room”, while the island slowly sinks into the sea. In “Tempest”, “Calvin, Blake, and Wilson gamble in the dark”, despite the catastrophe unfolding about them.
In the final verse of “Black Diamond Bay”, Dylan shifts the frame, revealing the narrator as an unnamed figure sitting at home in Los Angeles, watching newscaster Walter Cronkite talk about yet another “hard-luck story” about a place he “never did plan to go anyway”. He turns off the television and goes to the kitchen to grab another beer. There’s no such brutal shift in the storytelling in “Tempest”, but there is the coda of the watchman asleep at his post – another deviation from historical truth – who “dreamed the Titanic was sinking into the deep blue sea”. From these dreams, perhaps, springs the melding of fantasy and reality, the confused cast of characters, and the cultural mythology that has informed our relationship with this monumental tragedy in the intervening years, with history in general, or with the labyrinthine canon of Dylan’s work.
Unlike “Black Diamond Bay”, with its placeholder names, “Tempest” offers a more tantalizing glimpse of the narrator. It’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that the card-playing “Calvin” is John Calvin, the 16th-century theologian who developed the ideas of predestination and the influence of God on humankind during the Protestant Reformation, or that “Blake” is William Blake, who explored Dylan’s beloved themes of good and evil, death and salvation in his paintings and poetry. But if this is the case, then who is Wilson? Woodrow Wilson did not become president until the following year. Still, Dylan plays it fast and loose with plenty of other historical details, so we can’t discount this possibility.
Similarly, the character of “Jim Dandy”, who “smiled” because “he never learned to swim”. The character appears in a blues tune recorded by LaVern Baker in 1955, but it’s difficult to decipher what Dylan was getting at with this reference.
Dylan knew the importance his audience places on his lyrical content and how obsessing and examining in fine detail are things Dylan fans love to do. That Dylan did not initially publish his lyrics for Tempest appears to be an intentional move, a way to preserve some of the mystery and ambiguity of a remarkable record – a way to ignite analysis and conjecture. The record’s content was eventually confirmed in a book released some four years later, but the debate on what each line means continues.
A decade from the release of Tempest, the record has nestled snugly into the Dylan back catalog, one of many highlights in his 60-year career. Tempest was never going to be Highway ‘61 Revisited, made while he was in his 20s, and yet the LP’s title track and the snarling “Pay in Blood” are among his best songs. Tempest‘s Shakespearean-like drama heralds an artist arriving at where he needs to be and making the music he needs to make in his later years. Dylan wasn’t ready to say goodbye in 2012, and he still isn’t ten years later.