Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shot Between the Eyes: Bob Dylan's Tempest

Bob Dylan performing at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards on January 12, 2012. (Photo: Christopher Polk)

After 35 studio albums, hundreds of songs and the so-called endless touring, does Bob Dylan have anything new to say? Or is he repeating himself?

On Tempest (Columbia 2012), Dylan's new album released today, the answer may lie in the writing credits, namely the contribution of Robert Hunter, lyricist with the Grateful Dead. Hunter made a serious contribution to Dylan's last album, Together Through Life (Columbia 2009), indicating a collaboration that may suggest Dylan is running out of ideas for songs. That said, the first single and opening track on Tempest,  “Duquesne Whistle,” offers the bittersweet story of love that presents yet another Dylanesque turn of phrase: "You're the only thing that keeps me going/You're like a time bomb in my heart." Strictly speaking, it's not the story of a relationship that gives him a “lethal dose” but it reflects a matured songwriter who may prefer to wax nostalgic. And if collaborating with Hunter frees up the artist, then so be it.

“Duquesne Whistle” speaks to me of trains constantly on the move and considering Dylan's hard work touring the world over the years, the superficial meaning isn't lost. But as the band shuffles beautifully along and Dylan repeats the phrase "that Duquesne train gonna rock me night and day," I can only come to that conclusion on first glance. (A deeper meaning may take some time to reveal itself.) Nevertheless, the ten songs on this record are strong on first listen.

“Soon After Midnight” offers a “cheerful heart” that’s never “fearful” expressing a more resilient Dylan on the subject of love and relationships.  The grinding up-tempo dirge of “Narrow Way” offers a story of mutually exclusive expectations on behalf of the male point of view:  “It’s a long road/ It’s a long and narrow way …If I can’t work up to you/You’ll surely have to work down to me someday”. Talk about compromise!

Tempest reminds me a lot of Blood On The Tracks (1975) because it, too, is filled with heartache and vitriol. While this record isn’t covered in blood metaphorically speaking, Tempest offers songs that are a shot between the eyes, particularly on “Long Wasted Years” and “Pay In Blood,” a double A-side of love gone wrong and the long tail of bitterness that can follow a soured relationship. Of course, for Dylan as narrator it’s all-accusatory, but also free of any ambiguity which perhaps why I like him in the first place. He doesn’t hold anything back on the first five of ten tracks.

By the time we hear “Scarlet Town”, where the “sky is clear,” Dylan sings of regret, loneliness and isolation. It’s a place for the losers in a world where “love is a sin and beauty is a crime” a musical lament for the less fortunate. Clearly, he does have something to say on Tempest, which brings us to the second half of the album.

Tempest offers a blues-oriented track, “Early Roman Kings” featuring David Hildago (Los Lobos) on accordion. He provides a Muddy Waters “Mannish Boy” lick that repeats with few changes and actually complements Dylan’s raw voice. “I can strip you of life/Strip you of breath/Ship you down to the house of death … Bring down my fiddle/Tune up my strings/I’m gonna break it wide open like the early Roman Kings.” The song is stripped of sentimentality; with an added political inference that continues to keep Dylan’s music fresh.

“Tempest” is a 14-minute country-flavoured, sea shanty in 3/4 time. It’s the story of RMS Titanic rendered as a traditional folk-song full of rhyming couplets naming some of those on board: crew and first-class passengers alike. As tragic as the story is, it waxes poetic in Dylan’s unadorned delivery, one of the best songs in his canon, albeit inspired by the recent glut of movies and TV dramas this past year. While talking of the survivors, he eloquently states, “They waited at the landing and they tried to understand/But there is no understanding of the judgement of God’s hand.”

The album closes with “Roll On John,” a ballad about John Lennon that is full of quotations from his music assembled by Dylan in a sweet and, surprisingly cliché-free lyric. But it’s still a little contrived because of the obvious lyrical references, which include quotes from William Blake. While sung in a heartfelt way, it’s the least successful song on the album.

Tempest is Bob Dylan’s 35th release issued 50 years after his debut, in February 1962. In the book Bob Dylan: The Illustrated Record (Harmony 1978), author Alan Rinzler says of that debut, “We see and hear what the album notes describe as ‘a major new figure in American folk music.’ That’s the act, that’s what Dylan chose to show us first time out…but most of all this album reveals what an actor Dylan has become. Each song on this record is a theatrical performance… he was an actor, taking the mantle, assuming the role, playing the part…he knew it and we knew it.” No less can be said about the mature artist on this album.

Still, the blogsphere is drawing comparisons to William Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, a richly filled play, with hints of everything he wrote before it. Some critics have also suggested that Dylan’s Tempest could be his last album. For me, as musically rich and lyrically strong as this CD is, the suggestion of retirement would be premature. As Dylan himself has said, “I’m a firm believer in the longer you live, the better you get.” You get no argument from me.

 John Corcelli is a musician and broadcaster. He's currently working on a radio documentary, with Kevin Courrier, for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.


  1. “We see and hear what the album notes describe as ‘a major new figure in American folk music.’ That’s the act, that’s what Dylan chose to show us first time out . Well said!

  2. I´d rank the album 4 out of 6 stars. The album is indeed better than the last studio album "Together through life" but also indeed weaker than "Love and theft" and Modern Times". There are 3-4 very good tracks on the album but the lack of a producer is really beginning to show, and what was somewhat fresh in 2001 is only rudimentary on repeat now on. Daniel Lanois production on "Time out of mind" actually added another dimension to the songs, so I hope Bob reconsider and delegate that process to someone else next time. I alson find the song "Tempest" pompous to say the least.. but a good album overall./Jesper