|Release Date: September 10, 2012|
- William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act IV, Scene I
As of this posting, Tempest is the latest album of original songs released by Bob Dylan. Released in the fall of 2012, the collection of ten songs returns to themes familiar to Dylan's late period: time passing, mortality, romance, violence, and the ghosts of history. Does Tempest feel like a final album? One could say that about every Dylan album since Time Out of Mind in 1997, for a time considered Dylan's "death album." For all we know Dylan could release some new songs tomorrow, nevertheless one cannot deny sense of finality floating through Tempest from the title (considered Shakespeare's final play) to the achingly reflective opening track "Duquesne Whistle" to the elegiac tribute written for a contemporary "Roll On John."
Tempest begins with what sounds like calliopes that conjures sights from a distant past, a literary method Ray Bradbury used to great effect in the haunted nostalgia of his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. Then "Duquesne Whistle" kicks in for real and we're back in Dylan's America of endless railroads and roving gamblers. The sound of the train "blowing at his Chamber Door" like Poe's raven conjures the past, moments that may have happened yet exist only in dream, "you smiling through the fence at me, just like you always smiled before."
"Soon After Midnight" has easy going doo-wop and late night ambiance, except that part about dragging two-timing Slim's corpse through the mud. "Narrow Way" could be outtake from either Love & Theft or Modern Times with its steady blues rhythm and vortex of emotion, "if can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday." "Long and Wasted Years" tells the story of a failed marriage, one that's lost all meaning except for what it used to be. "Pay in Blood" was rated the best rock song of the year by Rolling Stone. Uncompromising in its old world values, Dylan sings "I pay in blood, but not my own." Here Dylan's the unrepentant judge/prophet/outlaw archetype, he's been through hell, "but what good did it do?"
With "Scarlet Town" starting off the second half of the record, the tone of Tempest begins to shift with Dylan leaning towards an omniscient perspective. Now Dylan's the storyteller, the songs are full of references to ancient poetry. Thematically, the songs take on greater weight.
"Scarlet Town" has inspired the most analysis of all the tracks on Tempest, a song that must be important to Dylan since he's played it live over 300 times. "Desolation Row" comes up as an immediate comparison, as the places Dylan describes are in stasis. Musically, the mournful strings recall "Ain't Talkin'." Life goes on, but moves slowly and sadly:
In Scarlet Town you fight your father's foes
Up on the hill a chilly wind blows
You fight em' on high and you fight em down in
You fight em with whisky, morphine, and gin
The town's full of the good, the bad, and the ugly wading through the quagmire of an eternal conflict going on since before recorded memory. Lyrically "Scarlet Town" is rich with metaphor and open to many interpretations. For myself, the song conjures the Graham Greene novel The Power and the Glory, dealing with spiritual dearth in a fallen paradise. "Scarlet Town" could be a purgatory, "I'm staying up late and I'm making amends/while the smile of heaven descends." It may not the be the type of place to visit , you don't have to, you're already there.
"Early Roman Kings" lifts a Muddy Waters riff from "Mannish Boy" in a song about Bronze Age gangsters. "Tin Angel" returns to Dylan's fascination with complex love triangles prevalent in songs like "Visions of Johanna" and "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." "Tin Angel" is a lengthy 9 minute song of a shadowy triangle that ends in bloody violence. I like the hypnotic melody, but the narrative gets convoluted.
For those who survived the Jacobean theatrics "Tin Angel," the last two songs are surprisingly sentimental. "Tempest" retells the sinking of the Titanic, a historical tragedy Dylan referenced on "Desolation Row," imagining Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain's tower. "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" gave a comical account of a shipwreck. Dylan positions the Titanic's sinking as the precursor to 20th Century chaos:
It was the fourteenth day of April
Over the Waves she road
Sailing into tomorrow
To a Golden Age Foretold
A cinematic account follows with characters appearing, mostly archetypes from previous Dylan songs and one that came before him. The definitive film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, came out in 1958 when Dylan was in High School, the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic is also referenced.
"Roll on John" eulogizes the life of John Lennon, a key figure in Dylan's life and the 20th century. Many have speculated on the influence Dylan and Lennon had on each other. If Dylan had a musical soulmate in the Beatles it would be George Harrison since they recorded and wrote songs together many times, most notably in The Traveling Wilburys.
Dylan and Lennon spent time together occasionally in the 1970s and would sometimes attend each other's concerts. In 1980 Lennon recorded a demo titled "Serve Yourself" when he parodied Dylan's Christian song "Gotta Serve Somebody." Lennon's murder in 1980 shook up the rock community and I'm sure Dylan felt the loss. Despite the slights Dylan always spoke kindly of Lennon. Despite their differences in style and temperament, Dylan, the survivor, pays homage to a friend and friendly rival. A connection bound by fate.
Thus ends Tempest, a weighty record with a bit of everything. Tempest may not have the sonic punch of Love & Theft nor the rollicking sweep of Modern Times, it's the words that are placed front and center. The songs are less grounded in Americana, concerned more with the convergence of mythology, history, and literature.