By Devon Wendell
Savage imagery of Hell on earth, twisted ultra violence, sinking ships, whores, and dying villains mixed with the language and rhythms of true American blues, country, Celtic traditions, and R&B make Bob Dylan’s Tempest a sinister yet melancholy masterpiece.
In the rollicking jump blues of the opening track, “Duquesne Whistle,” Dylan takes us right to the heart of the obsession with trains and getting out of town before it’s too late that’s always been a part of blues history. There are intentional similarities to the Memphis Jug Band belting out “I thought I heard That KC When She Blows” from 1925. Tony Garnier’s walking bass line drives the superb multi-layered guitar harmonies carefully crafted by Donnie Herron, Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball, and David Hidalgo.
The slow R&B flavored ballad “Soon After Midnight” is an anticipation of an after hours romance, while declaring a man’s vitality from a life lived to the bone, and the many women who’ve come and gone. Dylan’s sense of urgency –
“It’s now or never more than ever,
when I met you I didn’t think you would do”
– makes it feel as if he is coming to terms with his own mortality, chasing down an old love which has been a common theme of all Dylan’s recent recordings, starting with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind.
“Narrow Way” directly borrows some verses from the Mississippi Sheiks 1934 “Work Down To Me Someday.” This is a classic “You’ll be sorry someday” blues warning of a bitter and scorned lover. Dylan covers jealousy, anger, fear, and regret in every verse, as the band cooks up a loud electric Delta blues groove.
“Long And Wasted Years” is a sad and remorseful plea to a long lost lover. Dylan sings of an all encompassing romance that made the world disappear and family forgotten.
“I think when my back was turned the whole world burned.
It’s been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle.”
Dylan sings about the double-edged sword of a co-dependent relationship.
In ”Pay in Blood,” Dylan paints a clear picture of a character who’s lived a life of bloody brutality.
“I can stone you to death for the wrongs that you’ve done”
Dylan warns politicians, respected leaders, and good time harlots that he’s no man to mess with. The arrangement on this number is reminiscent of late ’70’s Rolling Stones slick rock n’ roll.
On the haunting minor key “Scarlet Town,” Dylan hits us with images of a hometown plagued with death, beggars, a “flat chested junkie whore” and terror, making his 1965 classic “Desolation Row” feel like a peppy walk through Disneyland.
Some of the images here bring to mind the absurdist hell of Samuel Beckett’s Watt mixed with the no-holds barred language of a Nelson Algren novel.
Over the past few albums, Dylan has used classic Chess records blues arrangements, as is the case on “Early Roman Kings,” which is a tale of greed, immorality, and male machismo set to Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy.”
But at this point, the violent boasting starts to feel redundant, and as great as the band is, it would be more interesting if Dylan and company had come up with their own arrangements. But Dylan’s hoarse, strained vocals often bare a frightening resemblance to Howlin’ Wolf towards the end of his life, especially with the backdrop of these Chicago blues rhythms. David Hidalgo’s accordion work brilliantly mimics every nuance of Little Walter’s harmonica phrasing.
More images of a bleak apocalyptic world continue throughout “Tin Angel,” in which Dylan’s narrative is of three traveling characters involved in a murder-suicide. Donnie Herron’s mandolin colorfully laces each one of Dylan’s verses perfectly.
The title track “Tempest,’” with its Celtic rhythms, is about the sinking of the Titanic. Although each verse delivers clear and powerful images of dead bodies floating in water as the ship goes down, 14 minutes is too long to have to endure all of this, and you’d think Dylan could do a little better than making direct references to the Titanic motion picture. Even with that said, Dylan’s detailed snapshots make you feel as if he were there during this historical disaster.
The closing number “Roll On John” is a haunting, mournful ballad, reliving the assassination of John Lennon. This is the most moving track on the album because you can feel Dylan’s personal connection and love for Lennon, with references to some of Lennon’s lyrics. Dylan sounds vulnerable, as if he is about to burst into tears. He also sounds as though he feels left behind by Lennon.
Many fans may try to decode Dylan’s lyrics on Tempest to find personal, sociological, and political parallels to today’s world. But it’s clear that part of the man’s brilliance is creating well defined characters and telling clear and concise stories – qualities which are too often sadly missing in music today. On Tempest (as on most of Dylan’s past work), he has created a whole album meant to be listened to from start to finish, no matter how far down those dark roads he takes us. And no matter how much we try to decipher what every verse means, only Dylan knows for sure. So we’ll just have to misinterpret these songs to fit our own lives as we’ve had to do since his very first album, which is fine for Dylan and for all his dedicated fans.
To read more reviews and posts by Devon Wendell click HERE.