Legendary Dylan Exhibits Lyricism In Abstract, Introspective Album
Published: Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Predicting Bob Dylan’s next move is never easy. The man has spent his 50-year career defying expectations and letting his muse carry him where it will. Sometimes the results are genius, like when he went electric in the mid-’60s, or turned his failing marriage into the stuff of poetry in Blood on the Tracks. Other times … well, he does something like Christmas in the Heart, the indefensible 2009 release where Dylan strained his shattered vocal chords with cheesy renditions of Christmas carols.
But it’s never safe to count him out. Three years after the Christmas debacle, Dylan has done another turnaround with his 35th studio album, Tempest. In some ways, the new album resembles his previous efforts Love and Theft and Modern Times, as Dylan continues to mine the American folk and blues tradition for inspiration. Many of the album’s lines and riffs come from older songs, and it is also peppered with allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare, and other sources. Yet Dylan is able to craft this hodgepodge of influences into something genuinely creative. His poetic voice is clear as ever, always ready with a sardonic quip or clever turn of phrase, and he still has a few surprises up his sleeve—whether it’s name-dropping Leonardo DiCaprio on a 14-minute song about the Titanic or crafting a moving tribute to John Lennon.
Tempest begins unassumingly enough. “Duquesne Whistle” opens with the muted interplay of old-timey guitar licks before kicking into a jaunty train song. It’s pleasant enough, but Dylan’s all-too-ragged voice isn’t able to convincingly sell the song’s sentiment, and a few of the notes are simply out of his reach. The next track, “Soon After Midnight,” is a marked improvement, with Dylan singing in a gentle croon that’s surprisingly effective. The song starts as a tender ballad addressed to a lover (“I’m searching for phrases / To sing your praises….”), but soon reveals a darker side, with the narrator stating “I’ve been down on the killing floors” and offering to drag his rival’s corpse through the mud.
The song’s turn is evidence of Dylan’s sly ability to shift the tone of a song with a single line. It also foreshadows the darkness and bloodshed of the rest of the album. Two long tracks are particularly notable in this regard: “Tin Angel” and “Tempest.” The first is an album highlight, a nine-minute murder ballad in which a jealous husband confronts his wife and her lover. All the elements come together here: Dylan’s descriptive powers are in full force, picking up on small sensory details and effortlessly shifting between his characters’ different voices, while cymbals, banjo, and a bass line steadily pulse to the song’s deadly conclusion. The title track, an epic about the Titanic’s sinking, is not quite as successful. Despite an appealing Celtic sound, a lively fiddle part, and some good lines, it is ultimately indulgent and fails to justify its 14-minute length.
Elsewhere on the album, though, Dylan gets it just right. “Scarlet Town” is an ominous portrait of a decrepit village, with some of the album’s most evocative writing. “Pay in Blood” is a high-energy rock jam, with Dylan’s fierce snarl ferociously delivering some of his most blistering lines in years, culminating in the repeated declaration “I pay in blood, but not my own.” It’s a song that puts Dylan’s weathered vocals to fine use, and is an undeniable album highlight.
After exploring such dark and angry territory, Tempest closes on a tender note with “Roll On John,” a warm and sincere tribute to John Lennon. The song is both a lament of his death and a celebration of his life, mixing concrete biographical details with more abstract verses. It even incorporates lines from Beatles songs and ends with an invocation of William Blake’s “The Tyger.” What comes through most clearly, though, is the affection in Dylan’s voice as he sings the chorus: “Shine your light / Move it on / You burned so bright / Roll on John.” It’s a touching tribute from one artist to another and a reminder of what a great talent was lost when Lennon was murdered in 1980—and, too, a reminder that we still have one of rock’s greats with us, still forging ahead 50 years after he entered the business. Roll on, Bob.