Thoughts of “Tempest” – album review, 10th of September 2012


Where to start? Should one base the review of the book »Tempest,« on the movie »Tempest« that you can imagine when you close your eyelids, or the Americana album »Tempest«? Should you write long or short? Should you write short and tabloid, or should you write everything you have on your mind? Distant cool or intensely excited? The truth is – I can not decide.

Tabloid version: »Surviving In A Ruthless World«

»Tempest« is one of Bob Dylan’s strongest and richest album ever. There is no higher standard, regarding to this reviewer’s perception, possible to be measured by. It’s an album you can sing and dance to, an album you can smile and laugh to, cry to, an album of horror and terror and darkness, but also with glimpses of light, an album that challenges and an album that you in fifty new years will be able to take up and still be startled by. Guaranteed! Musically it embraces the entire circle, from minstrel tradition and folk songs via swing, blues and country, until the bone-hard rock’n’roll and sensitive piano ballads. Literary and thematically we find, among other tracks back to pre-Christian times of the Roman Empire, both old & new testaments, via Shakespeare and folk poetry, the Carter Family, John Greenleaf Whittier and John Lennon. It’s all about love, jealousy, death and destruction, but it’s also about survival in a cruel world, and to endure, after all. Dylan sings like a god – ancient, wise, wrinkled, weathered, ruthless, sensitive & compassionate, and his extraordinary ability to convey moods, emotions, stories & deep truths is not compromised, even if the voice is. »Bob Dylan’s voice is anything but pretty«, it was said, already on the debut album of fifty years ago – then, as now, it was about other qualities, the performance, the »timing & phrasing« – and there he is still unsurpassed in exploiting its prevailing potential. »Some people they tell me / I got the blood of the land in my voice,« he sings in his previous album, “Together Through Life«. On »Tempest« he proves it. »Scarlet Town« and »Tin Angel« are two immediate highlights, in an unmistakably Dylan genre, perfectly adapted to his ever deeper voice, but there are more candidates than that, the marathon title track about Titanic and the lovely tribute to John Lennon, »Roll on, John» are two of them. When Dylan made «Infidels», he played with the title «Surviving in a ruthless world» (to continue the series of albums starting with an S) but he wavered and changed it – but here is the album that matches the title perfectly unused. «Tempest» is his greatest album in fifteen years – at least!

For the enthusiast: ‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’.

Shakespeare’s «The Tempest» is generally regarded as the last drama the writer wrote alone, and the last where he really drills into the depths of the human soul. He anticipated Freud’s psychodynamic theory of the human psyche, split into id, ego and superego, and the protagonist Prospero acknowledges towards the end of the play also its brutal nature: «This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.» When Dylan in an interview with Rolling Stone elegantly avoids reference to Shakespeare, by pointing out that the titles are completely different (the one in the indefinite form, «Tempest», and the second in particular, «The Tempest»), maybe the journalist still should have made some follow-up questions, all the while the relationship may still be of great interest. «Tempest» is on the highest level in dissecting the human, and perhaps Dylan’s own, soul, and digs deep into the dark side of man, and into the duality between the dark and light sides of humanity. A hint of kinship with Joseph Conrad’s «Heart of Darkness» draws itself as an obvious opportunity.

And the duality between light and dark is consistent on the «Tempest», often in the contrast between melody and text. A shining example is thus the gorgeous ballad «Soon After Midnight», that in it’s quiet and seductive way, makes us believe that everything is all right, but where the love sick storyteller soon reveals himself as a possible werewolf with evil in mind: « It’s soon after midnight / And my day has just begun. » He has the moon in his eyes, not the sun. Musically, this could have been an unknown Gene Vincent ballad, or a Roy Orbison classic, but as a whole it would fit perfectly on the soundtrack of «Blue Velvet», with all the dark forces in play. There was a lot of fun-making of Dylan’s mustache and Vincent Price-like «look» when «Love and Theft» was released, and suspicion was awakened in combination with the song «Moonlight» and the ingratiating botanist’s chorus: «Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone.» Well, here he appears from the shadows and we seem to see that he has sharp canines. He suggests that someone has failed to lock him up behind strong walls, he has been on the same «Killing Floor» as Skip James, and he is fully prepared to drag the corpse of Two-Timin’ Slim through the mud. Oh my!

The narrator’s vengeance is no less prominent on the album’s most modern rocker, «Pay In Blood», one of the best Stones-songs The Rolling Stones haven’t made, and the master of werevolves, Warren Zevon certainly would have been satisfied to participate on the chorus:

«I’ll pay in blood / But not my own. »
He has dogs on hand, who can tear opponents apart, limb from limb, if necessary:
«You got to drown, and you crossed the line.»

Justice or cruelty, holy or unholy wrath, we are never quite sure. It’s cool as hell, anyway.
Another tough rocker, which musically could have been a take from «Bringing it all back home» or «Highway 61 Revisited», is the rolling and very catchy «Narrow Way», where the chorus is swiped from one of Dylan’s many favorite groups, the Mississippi Sheiks, and their «You’ll Work Down On Me Someday» from 1934, and it surely must be Bob’s own Link Wray guitar we can hear that’s pushing the song forward? And anyone who believes that smile is missing on «Tempest», must think again: «I’ve got a heavy stacked woman, with a smile on her face.» Indeed. It lacks nothing:

«I’m gonna take my head and bury it between your breasts.»

Hiha! It’s easy to imagine that this track could fit well into Dylan’s live repertoire, we can actually see him, smiling with his harmonica, which is completely missing on this album, in the hand, despite the fact that its rich presence in this year’s concerts. In one of the verses he crosses, on the narrow road, probably unintentionally, the tracks of the author in Hamsun’s “Hunger«, as in the introduction to the novel notes that no one leaves Christiania «without being marked by it.» In Dylan’s text it states, however:

«This is a hard country to stay alive in /
Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin /
I’m armed to the hilt and I’m struggling hard /
You will not get out of here unscarred.»

The modernist sensitivity of the human mind and the unfathomable diversity is, however, very real in both authors’ works, although only one of them has got the Nobel Prize.

«In Scarlet Town where I was born,» sings Bob, as he has sung it for over fifty years in the 16th century ballad «Barbara Allen», a favorite that he has brought with him throughout his artist life. And he has always sounded as if he really meant it. But even more so now, in his own «Scarlet Town» – it is as if life and art goes into a higher unity here, the self-mythologizing Bob Dylan, orphaned drifter with Indian blood, circus background and mysterious musical merits, who in Martin Scorsese’s « No Direction Home »openly said that he felt that he was born far from home, telling us the story, as if it were his own, like it was some separate “folk dimension» he both comes and scoops from, where at one point he slipped through the curtain and into the real world, as much as a place he can always come back to and bring new inspiration from. And Scarlet Town is a place where «The evil and the good livin ‘side by side / All human forms seem glorified,» and the modern human environment becomes evident even within the traditional framework. The song has the spirit from and excess to another Scarlett – a «Desire» vibe with the memory of Scarlett Rivera’s violin, here played by David Hidalgo, filling out the sound with Donnie Herron’s banjo and the other acoustics, but tastefully interrupted with a beautiful electric guitar solo. A clear affinity with «Blind Willie McTell» underlines why this is one of the album’s highlights. Thematically, there is also an affinity for war ballad «’Cross The Green Mountain» where Dylan from verse to verse walk whole circle around the nature of war, and gazes upon it from all possible perspectives. In «Scarlet Town» there is also an extensive cast of characters – we meet, among others, «Sweet William» by Barbara Allen, who still lies on his deathbed, but in this song the perspective is much wider than in both «Barbara Allen» and «Sweet William’s Ghost ». We also get to meet «Little Boy Blue », who last appeared in «Visions of Johanna», while Uncle Tom is still working for Uncle Bill. It is also in this song that Dylan takes inspiration from 1800s poet John Greenleaf Whittier, as in the verse: «In Scarlet Town in the hot noon hours / There ‘s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers», where Whittier in 1850 in «Avis Keene »expressed the words:« The palm-leaf shadow for the hot noon hours.» T. S. Eliot pointed out once that the immature poet imitates, while the mature poet steals. Dylan obviously belongs to the latter category. Love and theft.

In «Long and wasted years» we meet, certainly to many people’s delight, the recitation rendering voice of «Brownsville Girl» and «Angelina», but here in a Luke The Drifter-landscape with a quiet country ballad as a backdrop for the performance of a resigned memory without hope. It’s almost as if we are transported to the spirit of the basement of the invisible republic’s pink house in Woodstock, where magical music was made forty-five years ago. Listen carefully to the phrasing!

The two singles used as spearheads for the album, «Duquesne Whistle» and «Early Roman Kings» represents perhaps the album’s two weakest tracks, despite the fact that they are both solid craftsmanship – the first a sweeping fresh prologue at the intersection of Louis Armstrong and Bob Wills, the Hot Five with Earl Hines (born in Duquesne) and the Texas Playboys, where Armstrong’s «rascal» is addressed directly, «I know exactly where you’re going.» In an ambient album both songs fit better than as stand-alone songs, on “Tempest« they contribute very well to the great composition of Americana that Dylan is so eager to convey. «Early Roman Kings» is a rough take of Muddy Waters’ ‘Mannish Boy’ (or Bo Diddley’s “I’m a man«), but with an unmistakable taste of zydeco, thanks to David Hidalgo’s accordion. The riff is simple and familiar, the text is an intricate description of both historic and contemporary despots of Mafioso characters, and the paradox that these people collect both admiration and fascination, racing through the night. The song also contains a passage that will ensure cheers for Dylan himself, if he incorporates the song in his live repertoire, as he finishes one of the verses: »I’m not dead yet / My bell still rings / I keep my fingers crossed / Like the early Roman kings «

»Tin Angel« is one of the really big canvases that’s stretched up by the narrator of this album. The title is a mystery. Can it be a forgiving kiss on the cheek to Joni Mitchell, who wrote a song of the same name, and that some time ago caused a stir with her comments about Dylan as only a fake and a plagiarist? Maybe not, maybe the title refers to the old folk night club of the same name, and the inspiration from the vast repertoire of songs that were played there. Folk duo Odetta & Larry also released the album known as »The Tin Angel«, recorded live at the club. Odetta was the same artist who once inspired Dylan to obtain acoustic guitar, a transition from electric to acoustic which, when all is said and done, was just as momentous as the shift in the opposite direction, though not as widely discussed.

One of the songs that certainly were sung at the Tin Angel was »Gypsy Davy«, a traditional song, and well known in Woody Guthrie’s version, recorded also by Odetta. This is also a song that Dylan himself played in the early years – the spurned husband saddles in both songs up his buckskin-colored horse in pursuit of his wife who escaped with another man.

In this edition of »Tin Angel«, as often before, Dylan has borrowed some passages from the story, but the great difference is that the intimation art that is used in »Gypsy Davy«, in Dylan’s »Tin Angel« is replaced and painted with rough brush strokes, where it all develops into a horrendous thriller that ends in a fiery inferno where the husband kills the lover, in Dylan’s version called Henry Lee (also known from other killer ballads), the wife kills her husband, and as a Juliet from Darkness, she eventually ends her own life. Love and jealousy – the great forces of nature in the world of song, and in ours. Affinity with »Man In The Long Black Coat« is clearly present, both thematically, in the event and during the performance, storytelling and intermediary at its finest, as he explores the dark heart and the heart of darkness in a possible sequel to the story that started on »Oh Mercy.« This is Dylan at his very best, the voice and the gravity up front and the tasteful acoustic arrangements in the background, with a clear string-plucking banjo the whole song through. Those who have seen Dylan live in recent years, can actually see for themselves the dense and highly interoperable touring band huddling together like cats, alert following the singer’s movements and steps, knowing that they never quite know where they got him.

In Rolling Stone Dylan tells about his fascination for Carter Family’s »The Titanic« and that he »fooled around« with it, until he started thinking about whether he should make the song his own. We can imagine his fascination of the story about »The Watchman« who lies and dreams of the accident. The viewer who gazes upon it all from the outsider’s perspective, a perspective Dylan has cultivated throughout all his poetry, outside the cabinet, the viewer, the Joker, the Outlaw. Dylan uses the Carter Family’s simple folk song as a booster for a huge tableau, which he has previously touched into in one of the verses of »Desolation Row«, in which he in a mostly effective way uses the Titanic shipwreck as one of many metaphors for life’s certain heading towards the apocalypse:

»Praise be two Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
«Which Side Are You On?»
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has two think too much
About Desolation Row «

This time, however, in the centenary of the Titanic’s demise, verses flow incessantly from an inspired Dylan, who paints the tragedy to the music of the Carter Family’s waltz, like a film that unfolds with Dylan as a commentator, where he takes us from deck to deck, from room to room, on the way to disaster and loss. Even Leonardo DiCaprio appear in Dylan’s adaptation, now under his own name, Leo, but still with a sketchbook under his arm. (The first verse is also The Carter Family’s, and not Dylan’s attempt to enter the Kate Winslet character, Rose, into the story, as some critics have suggested.) In glimpses we see the Titanic as a metaphor for the mighty ship of Man, where good and evil coexist, while some fight, other sacrifice their seat in the lifeboat for more worthy persons, here are brothers who fight against brothers, and Cain’s explicit contrast, The Brother Keeper, is also present. When Dylan recorded »Highlands«, his longest song so far, at 16.5 minutes, he was reportedly asked by Lanois if he had »a short version« of the song. Dylan replied laconically: »This is the short version.« That’s possibly also the case for the title track »Tempest«. Some have pointed out that it actually wasn’t a tempest when the accident happened, and I guess that’s true. However, one can readily imagine that the tempest in this context is as much used as an expression symbolizing an existential tempest, the storm inside the affected persons minds, in the same way that Dylan has used meteorology in many of his earlier songs, to express both social and psychological mechanisms, be it in »A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall« or in »Chimes of Freedom«. Maybe it’s not the album’s highlight, but the song is still, in all it’s simplicity, very fascinating, and the joy of hearing it grows every time – Dylan obviously enjoys singing it, he leans into every word, and he also succeeds in conveying the compassion he radiates from start to finish, something that makes, at least this listener, to forget time, even if the song lasts for about fourteen minutes.
Just a few days before John Lennon was brutally murdered, Dylan had incorporated Dion’s »Abraham, Martin & John« in the set of his Retrospective Tour, including, in retrospect, these eerie prophetic verse:

»Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked around and he’s gone. «

The murder of Lennon was deeply shocking to Dylan, partly because of the terrible realization that a »fan« had killed him, but certainly just as much because he lost a friend from the early sixties and a most respected songwriter rival and colleague. Dylan had also involved himself personally in Lennon’s life, writing to the immigration authorities in 1972, with the following letter: »John and Yoko inspire and transcend and stimulate, and thereby help put an end to this mild dull taste of petty commercialism wooden being passed off as artist art by the overpowering mass media. Let John and Yoko stay! «

In Dylan’s first album after the death of Lennon, »Shot of Love«, we can find the mournful piano ballad »Lenny Bruce«, the controversial Jewish stand-up comedian, who died in 1966, fifteen years earlier. It was already hard not to think that the sadness conveyed also had reference to Lennon’s death, consciously or unconsciously. Many people found it likely that the line about a taxi ride just as well could have been based on the famous taxi scene with John, filmed during Dylan’s tour of England in 1966: »I rode with him in a taxi once / Only for a mile and a half, seemed like it took a couple of months.« While this is speculation, the Dylan album of this year ends with his second mournful piano ballad with gospel overtones, and there is no longer any doubt present – this is the definitive homage to John Lennon, maudlin melancholy, respectful and bare, as in the chorus: »Shine your light / movin ‘on / you burned so bright / roll on, John «. In the song Lennon’s biography and lyrics is woven into an infinitely beautiful expression of both Dylan’s and everyone’s grief over the incident, before the »Tempest« notes out in a verse quoting William Blake, as if to top the team in a final plea for peace for John, but maybe also for Dylan himself:

»Tyger, tyger, burning bright (Blake)
I pray the lord, my soul To Keep (Dylan – or maybe more likely from the 18th century hymn “Now I lay me down to sleep»)
in the forest of the night (Blake)
cover him over and let him sleep« (Dylan – or maybe more likely from the 18th century hymn “Now I lay me down to sleep»)

Stunningly beautiful and a worthy ending to the album, an album where both narrator / narrators and listeners have walked in the valley of the shadow of death, not unlike the focus of Dylan’s first album, with titles such as «In My Time of Dyin«, »Jesus Gonna Make Up My Dying Bed«, »Fixin ‘to Die Blues« and »See That My Grave Is Kept Clean« – the titles speak of an awareness of death that hasn’t just appeared on the artist’s later years, although the depth of songs about corruption has increased in his latest flowering period from and including »Time Out Of Mind«.
In the Playboy interview in 1966, said Dylan, among others, the following: »All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die ….. Obviously, death is not very universally accepted. I mean, you’d think that the traditional-music people could gather from their songs that mystery – just plain simple mystery – is a fact, a traditional fact. I listen to the old ballads, but I would not go to a party and listen to the old ballads. I could give you descriptive detail of what they do to me, but some people would probably think my imagination had gone mad. It strikes me funny that people actually have the gall two think that I have some kind of fantastic imagination. It gets very lonesome. But anyway, traditional music is too unreal to die. It does not need to be protected. Nobody’s going to hurt it. In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player. But like anything else in great demand, people try two own it. It has to do with a purity thing. I think its meaninglessness is holy. «

The theme has thus been consistently, like a scarlet thread, and emphasized by Dylan’s constant attempts to play along with and in the tradition that he explains in this interview in a very convincing way. »I know it looks like I’m movin ‘, but I’m standin’ still,« he sings in the coy »Not Dark Yet«. But both are true. He was born in »Scarlet Town«, far from home, and has, like a rolling stone, all the time been trying to find his way home again. But it’s still storming.

Is he going to make more albums? Who knows? He says that »Tempest« was the result this time, while the plan really was to create »a bunch of religious songs«, but as it happened he was short of that kind of songs. Whether this is part of myth creation or a reality, we don’t know. As he recently told Rolling Stone: »But a songwriter does not care about what’s truthful. What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth. «However, we certainly know that he, in »Tempest«, has dived deep in to the dark, in a way that he could scarcely have done better, and that he probably couldn’t have done earlier in his career. The timing was right. Then he struck. And if he again finds favor in Grammy jury ratings, he could possibly brush the dust off his acceptance speech for the Oscar he received for »Things Have Changed« in 2001: »I’d like to thank the members of the Academy who were bold enough two give me this award for this song, a song that does not pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature.« As Shakespeare might have said it. It is also apposite for »Tempest«.

Epilogue: »Young, but daily Growin ‘«

To rank Dylan’s albums is of course possible, but not always easy, it is often like comparing apples & oranges , because this artist are seldom repeating himself – albums often have a distinct voice and direction, and like in his live shows, he risks rather to fail than to go for the safe, which results in failing some times. All is not good, and the results aren’t always masterpieces. If I still would be forced to rank this album in Dylan’s own canon, I think it settles fine next to »Time Out of Mind« (which I in other contexts has placed on my Top Five list) but would like to add that this one also is mostly infected by the musical liberation Jack Frost has been through after “Time Out Of Mind». »Tempest« is in its way a hybrid of the best of this last flowering season, which started in 1997, in which the synthesis of the always leaking faucet of an wellspring he writes from, his inexhaustible passion for music & his unstoppable desire to communicate, lifts »Tempest« high on the wave’s peak, and it washes over us, fresh and life-giving. Although Dylan eventually is so heavily burdened with medals that he can risk his knees by this alone, there is no reason to be gracious with his new releases, he got his »Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award« in 1991, and he, least of all, would enjoy the honor points for pensioners. That it is impressive that he, fifty years after his debut still delivers the goods, in itself provides no guarantee of quality. There is, in my opinion, no doubt that Dylan with »Tempest«, the first album in his sixth decade of recording music, truly are surpassing some releases in all the previous decades, while he both vocally, musically and lyrically deliver songs he could not have done before exactly this very point in his career. We all know that the revolution he once contributed to, can’t be made once more, and that the barriers he broke, doesn’t have to be broken one more time.

Finally: »Tempest« is also an album for the youth. Of course, it certainly also is an album for the aged, those of us slowly walking towards he elephant graveyard, but more important than that: It’s an album for the youth. Seriously! As Bob Dylan himself and his young aspiring contemporaries found the »Anthology of American Music«, just as they have found the Holy Grail, and just like the way they raked the chestnuts out of the embers of the fire of tradition that Harry Smith was afraid of losing, new generations, with far less effort, can find in Dylan’s »Tempest«, knowing that it embraces both the old anthology, which has its sixtieth years anniversary, but also the years that have passed since, as an »Anthology of American Music Revisited«. In the same manner as its predecessor, there is a towering door with ornaments, and with a key into Aladdin’s cave where you can find silver and gold that exceeds your wildest expectations, if you’re only looking.
Knowing that in the age of SMS and Twitter, you are at risk of being diagnosed as mentally disturbed by suggesting that an album containing text corresponding to an eighteen-page document, and where individual songs containing forty-five verses, may still be appealing to the young ones, there really are both catchy words & slogans, this time, too – the hip, cool, fast, urban & modern is also well taken care of, interwoven with the timeless – »It’s soon after midnight, and my day has just begun,« »I’m gonna pay in blood, but not my own «, “I wear dark glasses two cover my eyes / There ‘s secrets in them that I can not disguise ». «I’ve had my fun / I’ve had my flings / Gonna shake ’em all down / Like the early Roman kings.» «If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime.» With “Tempest«, the wordmaster expands the already wide vocabulary in his poetry, with a host of new words and concepts – both traditional forms & renewal, as always. In familiar style he uses of course blues and song phrases that have become part of the tradition – be it «Twist and Shout», «Where the buffalo roam» or «It’s now or never.» Expressions that should live on in many songs to come, expressions that Dylan helps us remember.

While he who searches reportedly will find, if not what he’s looking for, it’s ironic, that in a time when we have fifteen million tracks just a few keystrokes away, it isn’t certain that this kind of wealth is a more reliable source of secret treasures, than Dylan’s own hunting in the early sixties, where he shamelessly and rudely robbed acquaintances’ record collections. Love & theft. The amount of information & music volume challenge us all, and the ability to sort & prioritize increases day by day. «Too much information about nothing, too much educated rap,» Bob sang in the eighties, a bit prophetic as well, but unaware of how right he would be with respect to a time where the unlimited availability of information is both a blessing and a curse . Who will be our guide? Those who decide playlists on the radio? Record companies? Bob Dylan was always aiming to be one of these guides, both through his own songs, through a significant number of cover songs, especially live, through his one hundred radio programs in the series of «Theme Time Radio Hour,» where he just points to & highlights the major lines and connections both in lyrics and tones through the decades and centuries.

With the two prologue records «Good As I Been To You» (1992) and «World Gone Wrong» (1993) he started, perhaps without quite knowing it, in many ways a new phase of this guiding project, he cleans himself in a bath of tradition, he’s freeing himself artistically on «Time Out of Mind» (1997) by challenging boundaries, before he again goes into his own renaissance on the next three albums, which all contain significant material in the exploration of pre-rock styles. Nevertheless, it is in «Tempest” it all flows together into one irresistible rumbling storm of literary and musical qualities. A great Dylan album, but also a clarification of that this artist, like all artists, are links in different cultural chains. In Dylan’s golden chain, there are many strong links. Lucky is he who finds his way into it.

The End.

Johnny Borgan

P.S. This was the short version. D.S.

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