Bob Vander Lugt
Fifty years to the day after the release of his first album, seventy-one-year-old songwriting icon Bob Dylan offered up Tempest. His third release since 2001, Tempest is ten tracks of Dylanesque storytelling, dark scenes of sin and violence threaded through gritty blues and simple folk renderings. After thirty-five studio albums and a career cluttered with confounding artistic highs and lows, it’s fair to ask if it’s time for this folk legend to lay the mantle aside. Fortunately for his fans, both diehard “bob-cats” and the newly initiated, Tempest is convincing evidence that he ain’t quite done yet.
The album opens illusively upbeat, the New Orleans phrasing of “Duquesne Whistle” masking the lyric’s dark, nostalgic tones. The song chuffs along, its brush-slapped tempo like the fast passenger train the title recalls. Dylan’s voice plays happy tricks, too, starting strained and battered, finding an almost clean tone in the chorus, then sliding down again into graveled sludge. Joyce Carol Oates once said Dylan sounds “as if sandpaper could sing.” If so, age has only coarsened the grit.
Dylan teases us into the dark, drifting lazily through “Soon After Midnight,” a sly and sweet love song. Dropping in words and themes that reappear throughout the disc, he hints at some deep, if indiscernible, meaning. We meet Mary and harlots in a story painted with blood and scarlet and mud. By the time the Delta blues riffs of “Narrow Road” grind as raw and steady as Dylan’s voice, he’s no longer winking behind his dark glasses. We’re fully caught up in a mysterious and foreboding ride.
His band—the same weathered gang that backs him on tour—plays competently from the backseat, taking care of business without overpowering the lyrics. There’s not a kid in the bunch. The sound is tight and crisp, not showy, and moves easily through a fine mix of blues, country, rockabilly, and folk. Absent are the long, rambling harmonica solos of the past or anything close to pop hooks. Instead, the music rarely intrudes, floating a smoky atmosphere perfect for listening. On a few subdued tracks like “Long and Wasted Years” and “Tin Angel,” simplicity leans toward monotony. Still, this is a versatile and disciplined bunch of players determined to leave the spotlight on the storytelling.
The story, after all, is the reason we listen to Dylan in the first place. Since his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Dylan has carried the title of poet. On Tempest, Dylan proves he’s still up to form. The stories often unfold with the quiet of a late-night campfire circle. There is nothing frantically clever here. Instead, many of the tracks feel a little dull on the first listen, pleasant old folk stories told one too many times. But don’t be fooled; Dylan isn’t quite ready to leave well enough alone. In fine folk tradition, he retells classics, recreating them in his own image.
The title track, “Tempest,” continues a long Dylan tradition of lengthy, epic stories, this one tracking for nearly fourteen minutes. While it draws its first verse almost word-for-word from a folk classic recorded by the Carter Family about the sinking of the Titanic, this is more than a tribute piece. Dylan, a winking historian, tosses fact and folktale and fiction together through forty-five verses. Leo DiCaprio grabs his sketchbook, Mr. Astor kisses his wife, while “Calvin, Blake and Wilson” gamble, and brothers rise up and slaughter each other. John Calvin? William Blake? Woodrow Wilson? Dylan leaves us hanging, except for a clear reference to Blake’s “Tyger” in the last song of the disc.
Most interesting, though, is the watchman, a character absent from the original song, but embedded in legend. He appears four times in “Tempest,” sleeping at the watch, oblivious to chaos and imminent destruction. What an odd mix of real and surreal, history and prophecy. What does it mean? Your guess is surely as good as mine. And that is the perplexing beauty of Dylan at his best.
Except for a three-month hiatus demanded by a serious illness, Dylan has been touring constantly since 1986, averaging over one hundred shows each year. He’s not the only old player on the road, of course. They’re out there, old rockers strapping on guitars and coming to a stage near you. And they’re playing to respectable, often sold-out audiences. Why shouldn’t they? There are more than enough of us baby boomers to go around, clinging happily to our memories of better, or at least freer, days. For an hour or two, we can move our padded hips, wave our arms in the air, and remember. We’re not alone, either. Chances are there’ll be kids in the crowd, maybe our own. Classic rock isn’t called classic for nothing.
But pay attention to the likes of Dylan, artists who aren’t content to rest on their hemp laurels or their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. They still have a word or two unsaid: new stories to tell, old ones to retell. They do it with rougher voices and leaner chops, but they can still kick it.
Tempest closes with a soft tribute to John Lennon. With a melody echoing “A Day in a Life,” “Roll on John” quietly puts to sleep any grudges over Lennon’s contempt for Dylan’s born-again days. Slipping in Beatles lyrics, Dylan builds the song around burning-bright images borrowed from William Blake’s eighteenthcentury poem “Tyger” and biblical allusions. Blake in his poem asks the question, “Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?” Dylan answers without a doubt: “Cover him over, let him sleep. Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John.” It’s a fine fade-out for an album smoldering with old man angst, devils and angels, worlds afire and ships about to sink.
Fifty years ago, Dylan was the poet of protest for his generation, recasting the voices of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and nameless others to fit the times. But even then, he wasn’t bound by neat categories. His catalog is filled with cryptic and personal songs, veiled confessions of lost love and private torments, which five decades later still speak—long after we’ve let the protests fade. With Tempest, Dylan offers a new gift of restlessness wrapped in the wrinkled wisdom of a life lived: prophecy clothed in parable. If you have ears, listen.