on September 11, 2012
Bob Dylan is on cruise control. At the age of 71, he still tours relentlessly. And he records new albums about as quickly as your great-grandfather can peruse his collection of pre-prohibition vinyl records. He's like an old, rickety car making its way down the highway on fumes, puttering on with no sign of what'll give first: the engine, or that old tape-deck.
Dylan said that Tempest would be a wild ride, but I never really believed it. And despite some stellar early reviews, I don't think Tempest is a return to form the same way that Time Out of Mind. But it is a continuation in that same general direction, picking off where subsequent lesser-albums like Love and Theft and Modern Times left off.
The album opener, "Duquesne Whistle", is a typical 21st Cenutry Dylan opener: a strong, catchy song with just enough lyrical curiosity to latch onto, "Don't you hear that duquesne whistle blowing/ Blowing like the sky's gonna blow apart/ You're the only thing alive that keeps me going/ you're like a time-bomb to my heart" Those apocalyptic images make up one of Tempest's many motifs. The third track, "Narrow Way", features a burning White House, an empty cup, fighting in the streets and seeing someone both "buried" and dug-up. "You won't get out of here unscarred" Dylan says, before eventually waxing romantic. Later in "Pay in Blood" Dylan tells us, in a particularly ghoulish bark, "I came to bury/ and not to praise". Toward the end of the record, there's a long ballad about the Titanic sinking (it's the title track). Like another one of Dylan's long and uneventful ballads, "Joey" from 1976's Desire, "Tempest" is tiresome and of questionable sentiment-- and makes reference to "Leo and his sketchbook". Dylan croons about the masses drowning amid the Titanic's extravagance, but it's hard to tell whether he actually cares. That ballad, clocking in at just over 13 minutes, is neither as good nor as coherent as the one which precedes it: a nine minute song called "Tin Angel" which deals with themes of personal struggle, salvation, and reformation and is the closest Dylan ever gets to classics like "Hollis Brown".
The most difficult song to devour is "Roll On John", which is either a tribute or mockery of John Lennon's legacy. Dylan, from the present, warns John in the past, and smugly characterizes him as the singer who always played "to the cheap seats" and dressed in rags "like any other slave"; and then Dylan wails "I heard the news today, oh boy" and other Beatles lyrics, and makes wild exaggerations like "there was no more Joy" after Lennon died; and furthermore advises John to pass-over into that land where "the Buffalo roam". On one hand, Dylan does seem genuinely miss the influence of one of his greatest peers. On the other hand, I can't help but hear a few jabs to a rival between the lines of commemoration, especially given the extravagant way the lyrics pile-on praise and bizarre, sometimes outright goofy, imagery. Or perhaps the topic strikes too close to home for Dylan to handle. Whatever the case, "Roll On John" is the strangest, and in my opinion worst, song of the album.
Ultimately, Dylan is Dylan, and he puts out whatever music he wants to. There are those among us who would sacrifice all the musical world in exchange for the privilege to listen to Bob Dylan's music, and those of us who wouldn't. After hearing Tempest, I still belong to the first group.
Like Shakespeare's play of the same name, Tempest isn't Dylan's best or most enduring work and it might just be his last. But if that's how things wind up, it's not cause Dylan has planned it that way. "I ain't dead yet/ my bell still rings/ I keep my fingers crossed" says Dylan in another track, "Early Roman Kings". And like that rickety car, he seems to just keep on going.