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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