CK Retro Review: Tempest by Bob Dylan

Anyone expecting Bob Dylan to mellow out once he passed the age of 70 had another coming with the release of Tempest in 2012. Full of darkness, grit, and violence, yet leavened by moments of great tenderness, the album was the most ambitious Dylan had attempted in about four decades, and wouldn’t you know he pulled it off stunningly. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

10. “Soon After Midnight”- There’s not anything resembling a clunker on the album, so this track can hold its head high even as it brings up the rear. Dylan inhabits a musical backing that sounds like its been hijacked from an old Platters single and gets all romantic on us. That is when he’s not talking about the killing floor or threatening to drag people through the mud.

9. “Scarlet Town”- Interweaving lines from Quaker poets and folk ballads with references to his “flat-breasted junkie whore,” Dylan is clearly mixing up the medicine on this intriguingly elusive track. Bob’s piano sneaks through the minor-key instrumentation as if visiting the various people and places within this fascinating tableau, so rich and ruthless that it wouldn’t be surprising if one of the streets in “Scarlet Town” were Desolation Row.

8. “Narrow Way”- Dylan’s band really tears into this forceful blues number, playing with an abandon well-suited to Bob’s gripping, seemingly endless series of couplets that picks up steam as it goes. That catchy refrain suggests that the narrator knows his place in the gutter. He also knows that whomever he’s addressing is bound for that same gutter but doesn’t realize it yet.

7. “Duquesne Whistle”- Robert Hunter gets co-writing credit on this one, and, thankfully, it’s a good deal better than most of the collaborations he and Dylan had on Together Through Life. That Lawrence Welk gentility of the instrumental intro doesn’t give any indication of the ferocity that lies ahead on the album, but it is apropos for the train within the song which chugs along amiably even as it’s dogged by a hint of melancholy. After all, it might be delivering the narrator to the end of the line.

FOUR STARS

6. “Early Roman Kings”- Taking the music from Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” and adding some of David Hidalgo’s accordion to the mix, Dylan has a simple framework on which to hang his observations about the titular dandies. Bob spits out the lyrics with demented glee even as the Kings run roughshod over everyone in their path. I’m not sure whether Dylan is targeting politicians, CEO’s, or financial bigwigs, but it seems from the way that he sticks with the first person perspective for the most of the second half of the song that he’s sardonically suggesting that you should join ‘em if you can’t beat ‘em.

5. “Tin Angel”- This is a Dylanolgist’s dream in terms of the hidden meanings and lyrical mysteries just begging to be uncovered. It’s up to each individual listener how far you want to dig. For me, I focus on the grace notes on the surface, such as how Bob subtly switches the tone of his voice as he sings, from sly and suggestive when he’s being the narrator to a gravelly, disdainful bark when he’s portraying the members of the love triangle in their final confrontation. Shakespeare would be proud of the body pile Dylan leaves behind in his wake, and I look back to a quote from an older Bob parable for the best way to explain the mixture of passion and brutality on display in “Tin Angel”: “Nothing is revealed.”

4. “Long And Wasted Years”- People like to make fun of the condition of Dylan’s voice, but it’s hard to think of anyone pulling more emotion from his songs than Bob has, even with the limited range and ravaged quality of his vocals. Listen to his brilliant phrasing in “Long And Wasted Years,” as he soulfully emotes over a descending guitar riff and makes you feel every one of those years in his rear-view. He could be singing gibberish in that manner and make it sound affecting. Luckily, the lyrics are equally strong, recriminations and unhealed wounds giving way to self-examination and regret.

3. “Roll On John”- Dylan waited a good 32 years to assemble his thoughts for a John Lennon tribute. It was worth the wait. In typically idiosyncratic fashion, Dylan pulls Beatles song lyrics together and benevolent wishes with fantastical visions of Lennon in shackles and sailing into an ambush. Bob may be projecting his own feelings about the pitfalls of fame onto his old buddy, but what really jumps out at you on this elegiac track is the empathy. Lennon and Dylan may have had a complicated relationship, but this closes the book on it, and this amazing album, in the most heartfelt way possible.

FIVE STARS

2. “Tempest”- Like that dude who climbed the mountain just because it was there, so too did Dylan have to write about a song about the Titanic simply because it loomed before him as the ultimate in songwriter’s subject matter. In Bob’s retelling, the great ship’s destination, with the emphasis on destiny, was always the ocean floor; the passengers simply weren’t privy to that info. Those passengers react in ways ranging from heroic to heinous, while Dylan gilds their sad fates with effortlessly elegant wordplay. The watchman, lulled to sleep by David Hidalgo’s mournful violin, dreams away so as not to interfere with “the judgment of God’s hand.” Not a second of those twelve-plus minutes is wasted.

1. “Pay In Blood”- Some of Bob’s greatest angry songs, like “Idiot Wind,” “Positively 4th Street,” and “Like A Rolling Stone,” have an undercurrent of hurt running beneath them. Not “Pay In Blood,” as the narrator revels in the hurt he is about to inflict on the target of his unrelenting scorn. You would think such harshness would yield diminishing returns, but this is a triumph. It’s good to hear Dylan in a modern idiom for a change, even if modern means Tattoo You-era Stones. I can’t think of a better couplet to end this series of reviews than this: “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim/I got dogs could tear you limb from limb.” Says it all, doesn’t it?

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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34 Comments on “CK Retro Review: Tempest by Bob Dylan”

  1. PK says:

    Tempest ends up being 50/50 for me. I always end up wishing that Whistle had a sweeter vocal, Angel was under 7min, and “Tempest” was half the length.

    Still, I could watch Cloud Campos pantomime on the streets of LA for hours…. Sigh….

    Rollon is terrible for me and I can’t make it through…

    Meanwhile, Midnight, blood, wasted, and kings have infinite replay value for me.

  2. Baggy says:

    Well written CK, i feel you have really got inside these Tempest songs. It has been a thrill again to read your views (and rankings) over this last coupla months.

    NB – Soon After Midnight is a masterpiece on this album !!

    All the best for your next enterprise, and many thanks…

    • countdownkid says:

      Don’t worry, Baggy, stay tuned and that next enterprise on the blog shouldn’t be too far down the road. More on that in the coming days, I hope. And thanks, as always, for the kind words.

  3. Shabtai says:

    Hi CK

    Thanks for another good review.
    I agree that Tempest is one of Dylan’s best, and thus one of the overall best albums.
    But I think that you underrated Tin Angel. It is, together with the title song, the best song of the album.

    As you said, below the cover tale of passion and murder, it has hidden meaning , which is the real point of the story.
    The hidden and the important story (and tragedy) , are about ageing and love .
    The difficulty of coming to terms with the weakening of the flash and power, and the woman adultery which follows.
    The complexity and many forms of love . The physical one which the boss can no longer fulfill, and the enduring lasting one which causes the wife to kill her lover.

    On the other hand, you overrated “Roll on John” , which except for sentimental value, is the weakest song of the album.

    • countdownkid says:

      I do like your reading of “Tin Angel”. Yet I’ll take “Roll On John” over every Lennon tribute except the ones by The Beatles themselves (Paul’s “Here Today” and George’s “All Those Years Ago.”)

      • Baggy says:

        Well I love Roll on John, but i think Paul Simon’s “The Late Great Johnny Ace” can’t be so easily dismissed if we are running a ranking on who wrote the best Lennon tribute.

        And i’m afraid that if Paul McCartney’s Here Today is the measure….hmmm. I think the world wanted Macca to write a great song but this isn’t it.. a melody would have helped.

        So my league table is
        1. Late Great Johnny Ace
        2. Roll on John
        3. Empty Garden ( have always felt this was on the mark)
        4. All those Years Ago….all the right notes, not quite in the right places, but it has the sound so well done

        Unplaced .Here Today…I’m not anti-Paul in any way but seriously CK, do people think this is good ?? I’m still mourning John 30 years later, but Here Today doesn’t help me do it.

        And here’s a thought for you thinkers out there…was the song “Lenny Bruce” inspired by John Lennon’s murder ?? Is it a cluge of the two stories ?? It never made sense that Bob would suddenly write in 1980 about the death of Lenny Bruce , we know he fiddles around with the sound of names to create plays on words, and we know he rode with John Lennon “in a taxi once”.

      • countdownkid says:

        If you get the book, you’ll see that I mention Elton and Simon’s songs as good examples of Lennon tributes, so we’re on the same page. (Whoops, I just gave away that “Roll On John” made the Top 100. But where?) And I like the point you made about “Lenny Bruce.” You might be right about that being an early Lennon tribute, although I’m not sure the dates work.

      • hans altena says:

        Every ode to John has at least been heartfelt, but Roll on John hits me the hardest. And to comment on Baggy: funny but I always felt that yes, and now that you lay your fingers on the Taxi part I am almost sure he also had John Lennon in mind, just as he mixed John the Revelator with Lennon in Roll on John… His ambiguity is one of the great factors in his Genius…

  4. hans altena says:

    Yes. Thanks for the entertaining and insightful journy through Dylan’s oeuvre. You left enough room to differ in opinion, and, whatever the ranking, you gave at least a good overall impression of each record. With this one, by calling it one of his most ambitious and accomplished you got it completely right again, though in the evaluation of the individual songs I’d like to oppose here and there. Indeed there are no failures here, and the all encompassing atmosphere of its thematic landscape is what Man in the Long Black Coat once started pointing at (and incidentally it was already defined by Blind Willie Mctell, while Brownsville Girl was a lighthearted touristic road trip through its rough and threatening grounds). Things get real serious in Tempest and yet it is full of Dylan’s most daring humour. The only light stain is that the band around him seems so impressed with the explosive material that they focus solely on getting Dylan’s subtle inflections of his tough and gravely voice to the fore, and sure, he puts so much emotion, either angry or caring or whatever, into that old shaky instrument, and he gets that rusted car even through the most dangerous curves, his phrasing develish as on Highway 61, that you almost not miss the fireworks that could have been added. In most songs the restraint the band employs is effective therefore, in the centerpiece, Tempest, to me it caused for the first time a sense of the length, at first listening, so that I got distracted… I only got into it completely after having discovered the many shades added by the band, and getting drawn in by the sometimes almost too simple yet Tolstoi like descriptions that sketch such a full scope of our lives in peril, so that Desolation Row, together with the mythical It’s Allright Ma, the most beautiful thing he ever wrote in my opinion, seems a carnival compared to this High Mass. The whole album breathes something of a final work, where Dylan gets to the core of the visions he has touched at before. And he doesn’t hide behind shades anymore, when he is being cryptical it is because the subject matter is so. Scarlett Town is therefore one of the masterpieces of the album, together with Tin Angel, Pay in Blood, Tempest and Long and Waisted Years, all five stars. I pity someone not being touched by Roll on John, Dylan’s excursion into pure sentiment on Nashville Skyline and New Morning bear full fruit here, that lyrically he chooses to play with texts of the Beatles is debatable, but it’s done with fine taste, and there is much more wisdom in this one than meets the hasty eye, let it sink in and your heart sinks with it… Narrow Way might be four stars just like it, I see it as a follow up to Memphis Blues Again. I hope the heights arrived at in this breathtaking album will not hamper Dylan to bring more. And Kid: Roll ON!

    • countdownkid says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Hans. You’ve been right about so much stuff along the way, but I hope you’re wrong about this being the last album, even if you’re right about it having the feel of one.

  5. hans altena says:

    ps Scarlett Town seems to me to form a sequel together with Desolation Row, The Highlands, Ain’t Talkin and, strangely to see it happen on one record (he was literally bursting with ideas here as in olden days) Tempest, which to me is the most simple of the lot and yet quite a heavy one and therefore a bit unbalanced (prone to sinking yes but it rises to the heavens nonetheless). Like in Tin Angel he returns to an influence that partly started him to become the poet that rose in the early sixties, namely that of the Irish Ballads, and he infuses it with all his literary sense, derived from Blake, Joyce and Rimbaud, and he comes forth twice with a melody that has me fixed to the wall as if I got stoned out of my mind, and I haven’t touch that awful stuff since I don’t know when… I choose to have Tempest be in the line of the Big Four, Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61, Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks, just as I would place Freewheelin’, The Times they are a changin’, John Wesly Harding, Desire, Street Legal, Love and Theft and Modern Times as a worthy army right behind them, and Another side,, maybe Planet Waves and surely Oh Mercy and Time out of Mind as their spies in new territory…

    • markrb1 says:

      Have to agree that this is up there with his very best and dare I say his most consistent and cohesive piece of work since “The Times…” A fuller return to the sort of wonderful story telling that made “Highlands” such a welcome surprise. Shrouded with mystery and full of enough ambiguity to keep us trying to decipher those amazing lyrics for years to come. Are the folks waiting at the landing the passengers friends and family or the dead waiting their judgement at St Peters gates? Loved all the stuff that came out of the interviews too, particularly about wanting to make a religious album but not having the commitment for the project. Sometimes it feels like that’s exactly the album he did make. All the time drenched in the light that shines from the Son. Not since Planet Waves have a band sounded so in tune with Bob. Just love it basically. And thanks again for the posts.

      • countdownkid says:

        There is definitely something going on in the song “Tempest” that pulls it toward a religious feeling.

      • mickvet says:

        The ideas being thrown around in these reviews are among the most penetratingly perceptive I have ever encountered. It is reassuring to know that I am not alone in ascribing possible best-ever status to this album, an astonishing achievement by Mr Dylan, and a privilege to be alive to hear it. I am in complete agreement about this being a religious album and suspect Dylan’s denial was intended to ‘wind up’ and deceive the blind and deaf know-it-alls at Rolling Stone. Isn’t it wonderful to have such diverse disagreements among the contributors here about the relative merits of the songs? This can only be because so many of them, all in fact, are so strong, and a case can be made for any of them. Roll on, Bob!

    • countdownkid says:

      I don’t think you need to touch the stuff, Hans. Your mind is already working on another wavelength.

      • hans altena says:

        No worry, I take my inspiration from art and ideas, that’s why this Blog was so much fun (and more than that!) greetz

  6. tantrictrick says:

    To their (her) credit think patches and gretchen have more than done justice to the intensity and focus of Pay In Blood by deciding to reinvent it in a stripped down version. For me, 5 stars to Soon After Midnight and Long And Wasted Years for crafted pace and delivery 🙂

  7. rob ford says:

    Good stuff, Jim…though I tend to share Hans views on this one ( and on his back catalogue in general except that Saved is a great album and in the second rung of greatness for me and no maybe in relation to the magical Planet Waves – one of his greatest vocal performances). Scarlet Town is a masterpiece and Soon After Midnight is a great song with a performance to match. Duquesne Whistle is a brilliant opener despite a little too much gravel on the vocal. Tempest is certainly up there with Desire, Street- Legal,etc as it creates a sustained and remorseless mood which takes you to another world.

  8. Ruairidh says:

    Another great review – thanks for it and all the previous reviews too. There’s been some great insights in the comments section too. Tempest is an album that I really enjoyed the first time I listened to it, and, as I’m sure we all know, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great album. But Tempest sounds even better to me today than it did at first listen and I now feel comfortable in saying that it’s one of Bob Dylan’s masterpieces. I agree with the high rating for ‘Roll on John’ and it’s good to see other contributors rate the song too, as I’ve seen other reviewers practically ridicule it. It’s one of the first tracks on Tempest that really caught my attention; the melody, lyrics, pacing and delivery combine to create such an achingly beautiful tribute to the late Beatle. The closing verse also demonstrates Bob at his borrowing best – William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ is quoted word for word, but the context is new, and Blake’s words along with Dylan’s own add an almost perfect note of poignancy to the song. I have no idea whether or not this was intended as a response to those who cry ‘plagiarist’ every time Dylan draws his inspiration from elsewhere, but, either way, it’s a pretty darn elegant response.

    Thanks again for this serious of reviews – it’s some of the most thought-provoking stuff I’ve read about Dylan recently. I haven’t always agreed with the ratings but that’s been part of the fun. Looking at his output in this way has also made it all the more apparent just how fine a thing it is to be a Bob Dylan fan in the 21st century – long may he continue to share his talent with us!

    • countdownkid says:

      Good point about the music of “Roll On John,” something I neglected to mention. Really heartfelt. I’m glad you enjoy the reviews; if you like them, I know you would enjoy the book.

    • markrb1 says:

      Yeah, sometimes first impressions can sometimes be deceptive. Had to put “Tempest” down for a while in order to be sure it was the epic I thought it might be. A final thought from me on “Roll on John” that someone else touched on and I’ve been mulling over for a while. Seems like a major insight into his songwriting craft and how he blends different influences and ideas together. By giving us an easy starting point – ie Lennon but at the same making it clear that it couldn’t possibly be just about one person and blending in John the Baptist, William Blake, probably countless other sources. Almost a retort to the critics who lept on the bandwagon claiming “Floater” was just a carbon copy of that Japanese book. Takes some balls to quote Blake word for word after all the plagarism stick unjustly thrown his way. Another joke at Mr Jone’s expense.

  9. jzsnake says:

    After listening to Dylan’s Tempest, I realized we are all on the Titanic we just don;t know it.

  10. CB says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading your reviews, but I disagree with you and many others on Tempest. It’s eclectic and has some good stuff, but you’re reviewing it higher than Time Out of Mind (and L&T and Modern Times), which this album comes nowhere close to. Tempest has a lot more in common with Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart. Duquesne is a Robert Hunter lyric throwaway with a good band playing, Midnight is good, albeit a little slight in lyrics, Narrow is great but musically a bit tedious, Wasted Yrs is good, Blood is totally overrated (usually by old people who think 70’s Stones is both contemporary and music’s pinnacle), Scarlett, Angel and Roll on John are all pedestrian drifting into boring and totally mediocre song writing. Tempest is good, but overlong, and an old fashioned folk song the kind he himself ended, Desolation Row it is not, Early R Kings is awesome.

    • countdownkid says:

      Chris, thanks for checking out the blog. And I appreciate all well-expressed opinions, even ones that disagree with my own. I would probably rate Tempest a shade higher than Time Out Of Mind and Modern Times, though Love And Theft would probably be a toss-up.

      • hans altena says:

        It is a difficult album, not at all in the vein though of Together etc, because it doesn’t want to please. If you are not ready to go and sit for it and listen with all intent, and why should you? it can come across as not quite grabbing. But it is as a tapestry that only works if you look at it from a distance and let the little details seep in. Love and Theft, which waas revalotry and riveting at first hearing, is surely a toss up with it. Both records show a totally different approach. Tempest takes you on a long journey into the dark deep cavern where John the Revelator is waiting for you, Love and Theft smacks you in the face with all conceptions that drive us mad in the daylight outside that cavern of contemplation, both point to the same religious search for truth, and the path is tainted with blood, not everybody’s taste…

  11. John Stitltz says:

    All Dylan fans have their favorite songs, disappointments and strong opinions. Yours and mine did not always agree, but your opinions are always thoughtful, well-written and certainly worth reading. I enjoyed this series and look forward to reading more. Thank you for sharing your insights.
    John

  12. Donald White says:

    For me, the problem with Tempest (and Modern Times) is that the musicians sound like they’re on automatic pilot. Listen to Early Roman Kings and then listen to Love & Theft’s Lonesome Day Blues and you’ll understand what I’m on about. I don’t think Bob’s had a worse (and more unimaginative) touring band than the Modern Times lot. Charlie Sexton improves things; I just wish Bob had let him play with a bit more freedom on Tempest.

    • mickvet says:

      Donald, consideration must be taken of the limitations necessarily applied to the backing musicians because of Dylan’s ravaged voice, so vividly portrayed by Hans above. Personally, I find the Methuselah-like voice so expressive and descriptive, in all its life-worn raggedness, it more than compensates for what might appear to be an excessive discipline and restraint on the part of a band I would judge to be underestimated, particularly the rhythm section.

    • markrb1 says:

      The backing sounds fine from this angle. There’s nothing showy but why should there be? The gentle loving intro on “Roll on John” that reminds me of the’slow’ album version of “Forever Young” for some reason. The way the violin wraps itself around the Watchman verses in “Tempest”. The haunting guitar line two thirds of the way into “Scarlet town” And not forgetting the drums on “Narrow Way”. There’s nothing I don’t like about the way the whole album sounds.

  13. street legal says:

    time out of mind & love & theft are bob´s best albuns from this late period, best band & best songs, modern times fallows, then tempest, which is a very good album but the last songs are a bit too long and musically too flat, i can think in 20 other albuns that i prefer

    • Shabtai says:

      Although the whole ranking business , is a matter of personal preference and taste, I recommend you to read Hans Altena posts regarding Tempest album, and then to listen carefully again to the album especially to Tin Angel and Tempest.
      Maybe the “problem” with Tempest is not it being a mediocre album , but rather your capability to “get” its greatness.

  14. Ralf says:

    This was my first Dylan release AS a Dylan fan and being someone who’s never been completely enthusiastic about his post-’80s output, I remained cautious about it, not knowing what to expect. Much to my surprise, good sirs, it turned out to be a total beast of a record and Dylan, even with his less superfluous lyrics and growling bark-voice, managed to loosen me up with the first track alone, and totally hook me in! And really, isn’t this the darkest album in his oeuvre? I think so. A very grim journey through blood-red fields of death, yet at the same time it has moments of real tenderness. Plus somehow he manages to evoke his older albums, I think some tracks resemble his ’80s material (some people see similarities between Long and Wasted Years and Brownsville Girl) and Tin Angel even brings me back to the old weird American John Wesley Harding balladry. My only complaints would be that some of the songs are not interesting enough musically to keep one interested for their whopping lengths, and boring rhymes (a lot of the bed/head type thing).


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