Bob Dylan – Tempest
The Tempest was of course Shakespeare’s last play, scattershot meshing together of multiple morbid concepts, crazed characters and moral messages that the man had touched on in his previous writings but didn’t feel he had fully finished with; this was his final attempt to have his voice heard, the final emptying of his head before his imagination closed off forever. It’s a triumph, a tragedy and a terror to try and analyze is The Tempest. For me this album holds much the same status in the career of Bob Dylan; a man who isn’t yet dead, but based solely on how he sounds here may soon be.
“I’m not dead yet, my Bell still rings, sounds just like the old Roman kings.”
“Isn’t he already?” I once, semi-seriously, asked a friend when we were rattling of names of our favorite living artists; “and if he’s not literally then surely his is culturally” i added callously. A statement I would now take back and admit fully the folly of. Yes, all of Dylan’s compatriots have either been beaten like The Beatles or reduced to rollicking cover bands like The Rolling Stones (can you imagine if they came out with a ‘new’ album today?) and this isn’t a fact lost on Bob, in fact it may well be what keeps him going. The final song on this album is even a tribute to the lost imagineer of that British boyband, so Dylan is painfully aware that he is in many ways the last one standing. His message to Mr.Lennon after all these years, one that could easily also be self-adressed:
“Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John”
Dylan’s classics, and there are many of them, still sound as vibrant, youthful and relevant today as they ever did – the times haven’t changed all that much it seems – but all the tracks on Tempest feel ancient from the first old-country chord and the cracking croak of Bob’s vocals do nothing to dispel that feeling. I understand an artists vocals waning over the years of heavy use, but boy not only does Bob sound ragged he really struggles to even stay in pitch on some of the more powerful notes. Some would argue that he never sounded pretty to begin with, but this is something else. Strangely though this new tone fits perfectly with the old-west parlor palette of the album as a whole; his age what sells the otherwise simple songs within it.
“Listen to that Duquesne Whistle blowing! Sounding like it’s on its final run. / Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, blowing like she ain’t gon’ blow no more.”
Like any old man worth his salt Dylan lets his age apologize for any number of otherwise despicable lyrics that he lets out across the album: some of the lyrics are crude, nearly all of them morbid, the name Uncle Tom gets bandied about willy nilly while nearly every song contains some reference to boobs, breasts or the female chest. He pushes these buttons not out of any big attempt towards social change, not even to shock but because of personal belligerence, he doesn’t care any more what we think of him and simply lets the songs slide out. The result is a series of tracks that obviously adhere to Dylan’s own personal taste in storytelling; they are tales that he wanted to hear, whether they mean anything to us is secondary.
“Oh, please let not your heart be cold, this man is dearer to me than gold” / “Oh, my dear, you must be blind. He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind”
Thankfully then his taste and mine are actually rather similar and so I am fully on board when he paints a doomish and bleak picture of contemporary America; not one designed to point out what we should fix, but one to make us fear what will happen if we don’t. Though again, Tempest is folk music in the original sense, an atmospheric album full of classic storytelling styles and rhyme structures. Lyrically it is far more akin to the works of Tom Waits or Nick Cave then one would have ever expected: Pay In Blood sounds like it belongs on the B-Side of Real Gone and Dylan does his best Waits impression singing it while Tin Angel would be a shoe in for Murder Ballad status even if its lead wasn’t called Henry Lee.
“Our nation must be saved and freed. You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead? /This is how I spend my days; I came to bury, not to raise.”
So i really didn’t expect much from Tempest when I first put it on, but now nearly a week later I can honestly say that not only is it the best thing that Bob has done in years, but it is one of my favorite Dylan albums of any era. A big call yes and certainly it will never be held in quite the same esteem or have quite the same impact as his earlier stuff, but this album is just so much my style that I couldn’t help but love it. So Dylan isn’t dead creatively, his writing here is wicked and witty still; culturally we’ll see but I daresay this will make something of a splash and literally? Well, if he were to die before scribbling out another song then I think his timing would have been perfect; this album serving as an excellent epitaph for a legend of this life and the next.
“Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last. / Take the righthand road and go where the buffalo roam. Too late now to sail back home”