Record review by Gail Craig
Bob Dylan’s Tempest is studio recording number 35, not to mention the 10 Volumes of the Bootleg series (number 10 forthcoming), absolutely begging the question of what any artist could possibly bring to the table new and interesting, after this mass amount of previous work. After all, if you own one copy of many artists’ recordings, the similarity is such that you own all of their work. Even the long-staying artists can hit a slump with certain records. Tempest does not lessen in quality within Bob Dylan’s 6 decade career, but still amazes in many ways, breaking barriers lyrically, and offering surprises.
Some of Dylan’s trademarks remain, such as his rushing the vocals at times; likening it to his being so involved within the song he cannot wait to get the line out. Bob Dylan’s codependent misadventures are a mainstay, cathartic to anyone who has experienced relationship problems. Dylan’s music has always been a steady hook carrying his lyrics. On Tempest, the music is not progressive within the songs and the hooks could easily be sampled, although they do not sound it. Many differing musical styles are denoted on the record as well.
From the beginning track, the lyrics of Tempest are extremely complex and unfolding throughout the record. The intent and emotion of the lyric can change rapidly, switching from fondness and love, to physically aggressive, even violence in barely over the blink of an eye. The violent lyrics on Tempest are a bit shocking, thinking of Dylan himself. It just goes to show, Bob Dylan needs to do his anger processing work just like all the rest of us. If anything, Dylan has always been honest. He shows not only the black, or not only the white, but also a thousand shades of gray within a single component. As Bob Dylan’s character states in the biographically linked film Masked And Anonymous, “I’ve always let it all hang out.” Dylan changes topics and references not just in different verses, but again as frequently as a couple of lines. If one can picture being in a gold mine at the mother lode, with branches of tunnels exuding from the central area. The songs can travel from this main point to an adjoining tunnel which may only be for several feet, then veer off 90 degrees in another direction for who knows how long, break off 45 degrees in yet another direction, etc. The tunnel may ultimately rejoin the mother lode or by Bob Dylan’s rules, may not. This lyrical style is prevalent in the entire record, except the story song “Tin Angel”. It takes great skill to make this work and Dylan’s talent and engaging vocals achieve the task, shattering traditional lyrical songwriting.
Tempest begins with the single “Duquesne Whistle”, a fun, upbeat, railroad tune. The prelude and song are the style easily envisioned emitting from an old phonograph. Further, one can almost see Bob Dylan hopping trains, as one of his personality characters did in the homage film “I’m Not There”. Although not detracting from the record overall, at some times on Tempest, Dylan’s voice sounds ragged. This is not the case in “Soon After Midnight”, when he softly croons a Patsy Cline type of ballad. “Long And Wasted Years” begins interestingly, with the music being faded up. Bob Dylan’s reflection and philosophies thrive in the dirge “Scarlet Town”.
A traditional blues riff underlies “Narrow Way”, a long hop-scotching of juxtapositioned lyrics such as “I’m still hurtin’ from an arrow that pierced my chest”, followed immediately by the humorous “I’m gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts”. Technically, the blues riff dominating “Early Roman Kings” is too similar to “Narrow Way” to be on the same record, even though the instrumentation is slightly altered. “Early Roman Kings” is still very creative, with Dylan removing these ancient figures and plopping them into semi-modern culture. “All the early roman kings, in their shark-skinned suits…” The worst of human behavior and themes of greed pervade the track, Dylan relaying reality. He continues this vamp on the country track “Pay In Blood”- “You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you…Show me your moral virtue first”.
Two back-to-back epic storytelling songs are highlights of Tempest. Both have themes of death. “Tin Angel” is a 9 minute western love triangle, no chorus, no bridges to interrupt. Dylan’s details and choice description turn the song into a short film in the head, quite a feat for this song which plays like a Greek tragedy. The structure of the title track “Tempest” is different than its predecessor. The 14 minute story of the demise of the Titanic is tied together with status checks of the infamous watchman throughout, followed by a swelling, short musical bridge. Dylan again regales the story in chronological time, referring to the 1997 film Titanic, calling the character Jack by its actor name Leo. He brazenly shares his opinion on parts of the film, which contradicts the plotline of “Tin Angel”. This is a surprise, as well as Dylan’s viewpoint on the personality of God with the line “The judgment of God’s hand”, as if God were to blame for the Titanic’s downfall, referring to a lightening rod wielding Old Testament God. There are also other biblical references in the song. However, Bob Dylan is a constantly evolving person, and also makes the watchman’s role in the travesty known. Again, Dylan incredibly puts the pictures of “Tempest” right in the front of the mind.
A favorite focal point of the record is the final track “Roll On John”, for John Lennon, chocked full of Beatles song references, one of which spills over into “Long And Wasted Years”. The 9 minute tribute is a combination of lullaby and requiem. Notably, Bob Dylan does not point to the one assassin, but uses the plural, as if Lennon was too progressive for our stifled society. Additionally, Bob speaks to John in the 2nd person. “Roll On John” is a special and tremendous work.
Bob Dylan is one of the greatest lyricists of recording history so far, and Tempest is another of his canvases. At times conversational, with always the wonderment of his specific word choices and phrases, Dylan provides many other humorous, philosophical, political, and emotional levels in his lyric writing. He is indeed a master storyteller. After over 500 songs to Dylan’s credit, it is awe inspiring to listen to the epic story cuts on the record as well as the other tracks, and witness what he still can accomplish. If one were old schooled in the art of song lyrics, the evolutions in Tempest blow everything out of the water. It takes a gift to make this palatable, and Dylan is nothing short of remarkable for doing so. Bob Dylan and Tempest are one of a kind.