CK Retro Review: Tempest by Bob DylanPosted: July 26, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)