The forthcoming Tempest, with a scarifying Titanic narrative as its centerpiece, promised to be the ever-enigmatic, never-tiring Bob Dylan‘s most somber, ruminative work yet. But it’s different in the listening.
For all of the album’s off-handed menace, for its many betrayals, for all of its fiery condemnations, Tempest — due September 11, 2012, from Columbia Records — offers commiserate moments of community, of gritty determination, of desire, of grace. Nobody ever gets saved, or even forgiven, as far as I can tell. Yet there are tender mercies, things worth grabbing onto, fleeting pleasures for those who’ve made it this far.
The music provides its own counterweight, too: “You’re like a time bomb in my heart,” Dylan sings in “Duquesne Whistle,” but that line (so filled with loneliness and chaos) finds a home amid this lean, two-stepping Western swing. Ominous narratives like “Scarlet Town” and “Tin Angel” — the last about a fiery murder-suicide — arrive with all the free-wheeling attitude of a bluegrass picking session.
Elsewhere, light positively leaks out of “Soon After Midnight,” this alley-cat rockabilly ballad. Rather than settling into gathering shadows, however, Dylan instead runs toward some unnamed salvation. “Long and Wasted Years,” with its waltzing sense of reverie, is even more emotionally raw: “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes; there’s secrets in them I can’t disguise,” Dylan says, speaking so confidentially that it’s as if he is on somebody’s back stoop, having knocked on the door far too late.
Still, the heart of the record, its crepuscular centerpoint, is still to come — like that shadowy iceberg of old.
Dylan works his way there via rumbling roots rockers like “Narrow Way,” with its sawing guitar counterpoint. At its most rambunctious, this track feels like an update of the dangerous folk-rock hybrid Dylan first unveiled on tour with the Band in the mid-1960s — and, in particular toward the end, Dylan sings with some of the same abandon, matching stride for stride the savagely insistent riff. “Early Roman Kings,” a blues-soaked parable about murderous thugs rising to the level of national despots, trades that guitar for David Hidalgo’s accordion — but the effect is no less malignantly dangerous.
There’s often a loose improvisational feel, especially during moments like “Pay In Blood,” which settles into a shambling groove (almost like a country R&B) even as Dylan rejoins his hard-bitten survivor’s tale: “How I made it back home, nobody knows — or how I survived so many blows. I’ve been to hell; what good did it do? You bastards! I’m supposed to respect you?”
Finally, it seems, we come to “Tempest,” a remorseless 14-minute rumination on the Titanic’s desperate plunge into the icy black waters of the North Atlantic in 1912. The track, already one of Dylan’s most celebrated, unfolds with all of the specificity and dangerous proximity of an Irish murder ballad (“lights down the hallway, flickering dim and dull; dead bodies already floating in the double-bottomed hull”) even as Dylan underscores the broader human stories found embedded in every disaster: There are heroes, and sons of bitches; the unfairly doomed and the feckless ne’er-do-wells — all screaming toward the same awful fate, all swirling toward the sea bottom.
It’s a harrowing image, maybe the darkest and most completely sobering of Dylan’s long and often brutally frank career.
The closing “Roll On John,” then, is an unexpected delight, and not just because it arrives so many decades after his friend Lennon was shot in the back multiple times by a deranged fan. Dylan shows, through the prism of a broken heart, how the living carry the memory of those who have gone — and how that, in some small way, keeps these lost loved ones walking among us.
A small gift, to be sure, considering all that this world takes away. But, Bob Dylan — occupying simultaneously the role of leathered curmudgeon who’s seen it all, and tender-eyed romantic baring his chest — once more walks the fine line of contradiction, a place he has called home for so long that it ought to be re-christened in his honor.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Even 50 years in, he still never loses his balance.
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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Bob Dylan. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: BOB DYLAN: In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday today, Something Else! Reviews presents 7 for 70 — our list of top recordings from across the 70-year-old’s lengthy career. We were careful to select at least one project from each of his five decades in music, stretching between 1963 and 2009, but didn’t order them in any particular way. The list is necessarily subjective. But like all birthday presents, it’s the thought that counts.
BOB DYLAN – TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009): Bob Dylan, commissioned to do some soundtrack work, kept recording with the assembled group — ultimately producing a powerfully personal result. “Together Through Life” is a revelation in its stubborn unwillingness to move into the realm of Statements. Of Big Records. Of Career-Defining Blah Blah Blah. Dylan wants to make a small, good thing — focusing inward, mostly, talking about relationships with both honesty and a ragged sense of humor — and he brilliantly succeeds. Highlights include “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” and “My Wife’s Hometown,” both of which sound like shambling leftovers from Dylan’s late-1980s sessions in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois — complete with surprising synocations, biting guitar (courtesy of Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and fun, braying vocals.
ONE TRACK MIND: BOB DYLAN, “NOT DARK YET” (1997): For me, “Not Dark Yet” is the best thing Bob Dylan has done in ages, this perfect enigma from a guy who’s made a career of such sleights of hand. An edgy post-modern lament downshifted into quiet Civil War balladry, “Not Dark Yet,” remains a riddle — and maybe that’s the very definition of good art: It’s something that you never quite figure out. At first, when it appeared on 1997′s perhaps over-celebrated Time Out of Mind, I was thinking that this was Dylan looking back on his own life, on his many accomplishments, and seeing more to be done. Dylan, issuing his first original songs since 1990′s Under the Red Sky, had been slowed by a life-threatening illness. So, he realizes, now more than ever, that the clock is ticking. In a larger sense, he’s a guy, in keeping with the title of the Grammy award-winning album from which it came, who is out of time. Dylan is both misunderstood by a new generation, and also moving into the last third of his life.
SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: BOB DYLAN, APRIL 21, 1993: On this night, Bob Dylan once again proved he was no fan of history. And that’s why I’ve been a fan of his for so long. See, I’ve always loved the in-concert head fake. After all, I already own the albums. Alas, showgoers in the modern age want the hits, and they want them note for teeth-splinteringly boring note. My response: You could hardly blame someone for not wanting to play a 25-year-old song the same old way. (In fact, to be honest, you could hardly blame him for not wanting to play them at all.) Well, some folks around me during this performance — right up front, third row — certainly did. Too bad. If you wanted to hear “Like a Rolling Stone” simply regurgitated, Dylan’s hard-eyed message was this: Buy the record. All night, he played with structure, changing the tempo (and sometimes the key) of most every tune. I was enthralled.