I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan since 1965, and I’ve almost always been able to tell in advance how I’m going to rate a new album. I remember counting down the days till I could go into the local record shop and buy Blood on the Tracks, whereas in other cases I looked at the album and decided I’d get it some time. Although some of those have grown on me a bit, that first vibe has usually been confirmed.
I was excited as soon as I heard about Tempest. It’s an album that’s divided Dylan’s fans – hardly a new experience for him. I can understand people not getting it, but I’m definitely in the “it’s a masterpiece” camp.
I’ve mostly loved Dylan’s recent output, especially Love and Theft, Modern Times and some tracks from the Tell Tale Signs collection, such as ‘Cross the Green Mountain. The songs on Tempest seem, at the same time, a continuation of the same groove and a new departure.
As with most of his recent work, Dylan’s casting a jaundiced eye over the modern world – “the new dark age” as he once called it – attacking hypocrisy and lamenting the loss of honour and compassion, but his world-view has rarely been as bleak as this, and his voice matches it. Dylan’s voice has always been raw and rasping, but it’s even more so now. This is an element many people seem to dislike, but it seems to me that he’s finally achieved what he’s been trying for since he was twenty – the true rough edge of blues masters like Charley Patton or Blind Willie Johnson. In spite of the rasp, Dylan’s in full control of what his voice is doing, and his timing, phrasing and ability to invest a word with extra meaning are unimpaired.
He’s using his touring band on this album, and it shows clearly that they’re used to playing with him. Like all Dylan’s most successful backing combos, such as the Band and the Kooper/Bloomfield line-up of the mid-60s, they have the knack of sounding like an extension of what Dylan’s doing, without sacrificing their individual musicianship. It’s not an easy balance to maintain through his various musical styles, and they achieve it beautifully.
For any new Dylan album, though, the most significant factor has to be the songs he’s come up with. For the most part, as on recent albums, it ranges from Chicago blues, to country ballads to rock ‘n’ roll, but there are variations – Scarlet Town is as swampy as a six-foot alligator, while Tin Angel is a barely sung folk ballad over an ominous bass riff.
Lyrically, the earlier songs on the album are fairly direct (well, direct for Dylan, that is) and play about with his old habit of setting up clichés only to explode them in our faces. I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises he warbles at the beginning of Soon After Midnight, but this isn’t some dumb romantic song. His “date with the Fairy Queen” is on night-time streets full of whores, death and vengeance – Two-timing Slim, who’s ever heard of him? I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.
Dylan has said that he wanted to make a religious album, but it didn’t turn out that way, and religious imagery haunts many of these songs. You went and lost your lovely head for a drink of wine and a crust of bread (from Narrow Way) suggests the Christian Eucharist, as does Man cannot live by bread alone, I pay in blood, but not my own (from Pay In Blood). This is a long way, though, from the straightforward religion of the late 70s/early 80s, and the references are both uncomfortable and ambiguous. Is the blood he pays in the blood of Christ, or the blood of other people – victims of war, perhaps? Or both? Maybe, in the end, that’s distinction isn’t what the song’s about, and you can take it whichever way you like.
The later songs are more oblique. Scarlet Town begins with the opening line of the traditional ballad Barbara Allen, but then goes its own way into a nightmare vision of life in Sodom and Gomorrah where you fight your father’s foes... You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in, you fight ‘em with whiskey, morphine and gin.
Tin Angel also begins as if it’s going to be a traditional ballad (Black Jack Davey in this case) but soon veers off into what could perhaps best be described as the lovechild of Isis and The Man in the Long Black Coat, but far darker and more vicious than either. This Tin Angel couldn’t be further from the gentle song of the same name on Joni Mitchell’s Clouds – and, since Mitchell criticised Dylan for plagiary a few years back, maybe the choice of title isn’t an accident.
The title track is a thirteen-minute telling of the sinking of the Titanic, but not a straightforward version. Dylan has transformed the event into a myth of a society that can’t see that it’s ship is sinking, in a way that reminds me a little of Black Diamond Bay. An assortment of characters that would do justice to Desolation Row are intent on their own business – even Leonardo DiCaprio gets a look in back on the ship – overseen by the Watchman (Dylan himself?) who saw the Titanic was sinking and tried to tell someone.
Dylan has only ever done one song before that’s a tribute to a fellow artist – Lenny Bruce from 1981, which was uncompromisingly direct. On the final track here, Roll On John, he gives us a version of John Lennon’s life that doesn’t allow mere facts to get in the way of a good myth – on a slave-ship, ambushed where the buffalo roam, it tells us not how Lennon’s life was, but how Dylan sees it.
Modern Times was criticised in some circles (including by Joni Mitchell) for the way Dylan based some of the tracks on older songs, even though it was no different from what he was doing in the 60s, basing songs on Scarborough Fair, Lord Franklin, The Parting Glass and many others. There’s been criticism of Tempest on the grounds that he uses many quotes in the lyrics, but this misses the point. There’s an old saying that a bad poet/artist etc imitates, a good one steals. Dylan steals, just like Homer or Shakespeare, but far from cheating, the connections the quotes evoke give a whole extra shade of meaning. Just as they do in Elliot’s The Waste Land, which is widely considered one of the great poems of the 20th century.
There’s been speculation that there may be significance that this album has the same title as Shakespeare’s last play (well, more or less his last). Dylan’s joked that his title is missing The, and that makes all the difference. Whatever the significance, I can’t imagine him calling it a day before he has to. On the form of Tempest, I hope that’s a very long time.