As promised, the new Dylan record reviewed by a true expert and friend, Mr. Ken Wilson:
I’m a bit of a Dylan fanatic. I’ve seen 51 shows and counting (Lord willing); I make his mother’s banana bread on his birthday; I’ve heard so many live versions of his classics that I fancy (the heart is deceitful), when hearing an off-night mp3, that I could improve his phrasing. Nothing serious, even if my cockatiel is named “Bob.”
But he’s my favorite character, not my hero. I only skim the thick volumes that treat his every lyric like it’s as reference-rich as Finnegan’s Wake. I’m a little suspicious of critics who treat his current live shows as sage summations of his career, because they ain’t what they used to be, and neither is the band. But fortunately Bob–the man, not the bird – is still putting out records.
Really, I would have been satisfied after Time Out of Mind, a bleak late (or so we thought) masterpiece (Dylan was 57), and Love and Theft, an even later one. These were unexpected gifts, the first a dark and bluesy return to form after some very spotty 80’s releases, the second a tour de force of subtlety, wit, and musical range that came out on 9/11 and felt like it was meant to. And now 11 years later, incredibly, after the hit and miss Modern Times, the lighthearted but lightweight Together Through Life, and the for-true-believers-only, heartfelt but hilarious Christmas in the Heart, comes Tempest, another record worthy of that earlier company.
Of course to appreciate it you have to love or at least make your peace with the voice, the voice once compared to that of a dog caught in barbed wire – and 50 years ago at that. These days it’s fashionable and kind—and entirely accurate—to say Dylan sounds like he wanted to back then, like one of the hard-bitten characters he worshiped, one of those guys with the fancied hard-won wisdom of the road. (One of the most moving performances I ever heard him give was of Song for Woody [Guthrie] in 2000 – but I digress).
Yes his voice is constricted in range, and harsh and dry when he barks and excoriates. But for many of us it’s still beautiful, entirely up to the varying tasks to which he puts it, the tasks of prophet and supplicant, of leering tour guide and elegist. Vengeance and sardonic indictment sit side by side on his new record with acknowledgements of need and grace (“I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me some day”). Go figure. Maybe look into your own heart. Or mine.
“Anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense,” Dylan told Rolling Stone about Tempest, and his sometimes seemingly stream of consciousness mix of old blues and folk lines, Biblical allusions and nursery rhymes is by turns head spinning, laugh out loud funny, and enchanting. He’s steeped in scripture and steeped in the Great American Songbook – workingman’s edition. He can write.
The album’s opener, Duquesne Whistle, takes its title from a New York-Pittsburgh railroad line, and bears faint lyrical and melodic resemblance to the 1920’s jug band song, KC Moan (“Well, I thought I had heard that K C when she moan”). That song was a 50’s folk revival standard, and Dylan’s nod to it (and to probably 20 other train songs) sounds like something Garrison Keillor would sing on A Prairie Home Companion. Sure enough, the other week he did – twice.
On the warm and gentle Soon After Midnight, the singer’s heart “is cheerful, it’s never fearful”; he’s “got a date with the Fairy Queen.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream meets doo-wop here, and is rudely punctured by a lurid headline that could have come straight from Benghazi.
Narrow Way (‘it’s a long and narrow way”) takes us out on the dance floor of a Chicago blues club with a world weary but unbowed singer, full of piss and vinegar, randy yet tender, unsparing yet not unkind.
“Ever since the British burned the White House down
There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town”
“You went and lost your lovely head
For a drink of wine and a crust of bread”
Dylan’s expressions of faith these days are plainspoken and earthy, not pietistic, never gnostic.
“I’ve got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face
And she has crowned my soul with grace”
Spirit and flesh (yes, that kind) embrace and exult.
“I love women, and she loves men
We’ve been to the West, and we’re going back again
I heard a voice at the dusk of day
Saying, ‘Be gentle brother, be gentle and pray.’”
Long and Wasted Years is an achingly beautiful ballad, remorseful and remonstrating, about a love gone cold.
“Last night I heard you talkin’ in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say
Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday”
Pay in Blood and Early Roman Kings indict politicians and power brokers and who knows who else on Dylan’s list of “peddlers and meddlers” who “destroyed your city” and will “destroy you as well.” “I’ve been through hell, what good did it do? You bastard! I’m supposed to respect you?” the singer sneers in the former, boasting of what he’s survived and promising reprisal. The casting of stones notwithstanding, coming from Dylan the allusion to atonement here is unmistakable, and the stunning central lyric, “I pay in blood, but not my own,” functions as both threat and Christian confession. Pay in Blood’s melody isn’t memorable, but Early Roman Kings sounds instantly familiar, cloning as it does the blues braggadocio of Mannish Boy, a Willie Dixon classic most associated with Muddy Waters.
The ominous Scarlet Town riffs off of Barbara Allen, the popular folk song with 17th century roots which Dylan used to sing. It’s a battlefield tour, ribald and ruminative, of a place where “if love is a sin, then beauty is a crime,” but all things, nonetheless, “are beautiful in their time.” Tin Angel alludes to Barbara Allen too, but it’s a more literal throwback, a nine minute-long, ploddingly paced, old-fashioned murder ballad about a lady, her “boss,” and the lover who carries her away, that ends with two murders and a suicide.
If Tin Angel, with its musical monotony and sometimes uncharacteristically stilted phrasing, is the least engrossing song here, the final two cuts, fourteen and seven and half minutes-long respectively, are the most touching. Like Tin Angel, the title track unfolds doggedly, all verses and no choruses as it imagines the sinking of the Titanic through the dreams of the ship’s watchman and the actions of passengers including the fictional Leo (Leonard DiCaprio’s artist character in the hit movie), “the rich man, Mr. Astor” (John Jacob Astor IV) and “many, many others, nameless here for evermore.”
“They battened down the hatches, but the hatches wouldn’t hold
They drowned upon the staircase of brass and polished gold”
A short fiddle passage introduces the simple, repeating waltz tune, sad and steady and grand, as implacable as the sea that fills the ship.
“The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside”
Roll On John mixes clichés, childhood prayers (“I pray the Lord my soul to keep”) and William Blake (Tyger, Tyger burning bright”) with numerous lines from Lennon’s own songs. Dylan’s voice here is at its most ravishing, but it’s easy to hear the fallen Beatle singing to this tune himself; he would have sounded terrific on it.
“Sailin’ through the trade winds bound for the South
Rags on your back just like any other slave
They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth
Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave”
Dylan has always chafed at attempts to pin him down, and picturing his fellow rock icon as a kindred hounded spirit, he implores him to seek his freedom, to “roll through the rain and snow,” to “take the right-hand road and go where the buffalo roam.”
As closing numbers, these two elegies follow the righteous rage and revulsion found elsewhere with benediction and an acceptance of fate.
“He saw the starlight shining, streaming from the East
Death was on the rampage, but his heart was now at peace” – (Tempest)
Dylan has said of Tempest that he set out to write “specifically” religious songs, but that a whole album’s worth proved too difficult. Who knows what that would have sounded like (most definitely not born again-period installment IV). But what he’s given us, another unflinching report from a twisted but ultimately trusting heart, is probably far more interesting.