Bob Dylan’s violent storm: review of Tempest

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, September 12 2012

Numerous critics have been praising Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album Tempest as the finest record he has made in a long time. Lyrically, it is a Dylan chef-d’oeuvre. Lines breeze out of him as he maximizes wordplay, and growls through his ballads. It is the album of a man who has found his calling as a totemic elder statesman of American folk and blues, and is a stark reminder why this septuagenarian remains music’s foremost storyteller.

The word ‘tempest’ is defined as ‘a violent windstorm, or furious agitation, commotion, or tumult; uproar’ – and this album is Dylan’s very own storm; his imagination, his thoughts, and his record. Over the course of ten tracks he recounts explosive tales of tragedy, madness, darkness and much bloodshed. It is one of the darkest Dylan records to appear in a long time.

Like so many great blues records the album opens with a train song. ‘Duquesne Whistle’ is a cool, calm and tranquil ride, which is a much needed entrée before Dylan takes us through his sanguinary world. The intro is reminiscent of guitar duo Santo and Johnny. It then builds into a pacey tempo, led by long serving bassist Tony Garnier and the Charlie Christian influenced swinging guitars of Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball.

Quite who the woman in the song is, is unclear. Is she from the city in SW Pennsylvania, or the Monongahela River called ‘Duquesne’? Is she a lost lover, a figment of imagination, a fantasy, or just a dream? Like Dylan’s ‘Red River Shore’, these questions become even less answerable as the song progresses.

The ‘Duquesne whistle’ may be metaphorical for a woman performing fellatio: ‘blowing like it’s gonna blow my blues away’, and she is ‘blowing like she never blowed before. Furthermore, ‘that Duquesne train gonna ride me night and day’ is reminiscent of the sexual ‘Rockin’ and Rollin’ by Lil’ Son Jackson in 1950, which was later made famous as ‘Rock Me Baby’ by B.B. King.

‘Soon after Midnight’ begins as a mellow, sanguine, and romantic love song. While lyrically much of it is basic, there are nonetheless several scathing lines, as Dylan gradually drags us to a darker place, where he murmurs about killing “Two timing slim”. He then drags ‘his corpse through the mud’. In this song, Dylan is comforting a woman whom he loves that has been cheated on. He too has been ‘down on the killing floor’, which is why his heart is ‘fearful, it’s never cheerful’. This is an explicit reference to Howlin’ Wolf’s 1964 song ‘Killin’ Floor’, which is about Wolf’s wife (one of seven) who shot him. His guitarist Hubert Sumlin stated: ‘Down on the killing floor-that means a woman has you down…. She went out of her way to try to kill you. She at the peak of doing it, and you got away now’, adding, ‘You know people have wished they was dead-you been treated so bad that sometimes you just say, “Oh Lord have mercy”.’

Dylan’s sentiment is clear. Lord have mercy indeed.

Amidst all the bloodshed is the gritty, jumpy Chicago blues-inspired ‘Narrow Way’. Like much of his work from the last decade, the influence of forgotten blues artists is present. Here the chorus is taken from the Mississippi Sheik’s 1934 song ‘You’ll Work Down to Me Someday’. It is one of the darkest songs on the album, and there is a strong religious aspect to it. In a similar fashion to the great bluesmen before him, Dylan has never shied from singing about religion, and on this track he bemoans his loss of faith. He has given up: ‘If I can’t work up to you/ you’ll surely have to work down to me someday’. And, ‘Look down angel from the skies/Help my weary soul to rise’. It is not dissimilar to Robert Johnson’s ‘Crossroads’, where Johnson sings: ‘asked the Lord above “have mercy, now/ save poor Bob, if you please”‘.

Such a gritty number is followed by the gorgeous ‘Long and Wasted Years’. In this ballad the protagonist apologizes for hurting his scorned lover’s feelings. The woman had talked in her sleep the evening before, something he warns ‘you just might have to go to jail someday’ for. The song is driven by the fabulous guitar production, as Dylan croons, almost talking, in a similar fashion to ‘Brownsville Girl’ or ‘Three Angels’. There are plenty of lines that one expects from such a master of the American folk tradition: ‘I ain’t seen my family in 20 years/ they may be dead by now. I lost track of them after they lost their land’. His bitterness is perfectly captured towards the end, ‘I think that when my back was turned/the whole world behind me burned’, adding ‘we cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years’.

The standout track of the album, ‘Pay in Blood’ opens with a slight Tex-Mex swagger that suits the threatening and cock-sure gangster figure Dylan adopts. It is not dissimilar to several tunes from Shot of Love, such as ‘Heart of Mine’, or ‘Watered down Love’, and also has echoes of Dylan’s sublime ‘Mississippi’ from Love and Theft. Throughout the track Dylan is evidently fuming, declaring he will not pay for whatever event has gone down, ‘I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break/legs and arms and body and bone/I pay in blood, but not my own’.

‘Scarlett Town’ is the setting for the child ballad ‘Barbara Allen’, which Dylan has sung many times throughout his career. The number is aided with the beautifully slow banjo, which creates a darkly mysterious atmosphere. Dylan narrates about a whole host of characters – ‘Sweet William Holme’, ‘Mistress Mary’, ‘Little Boy Blue’, as well a musician called ‘Joe’, who is instructed to play Ernest Tubb’s 1941 country song ‘Walkin’ the Floor’.

Previously on Modern Times, Dylan sang ‘I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs’ on the track ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’. On the Muddy Waters inspired number, ‘Early Roman Kings’ he conjures these souls up once again. Here he is livid with those in charge. ‘The meddlers and peddlers, they buy and they sell/they destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well’. As Dylan has done throughout his career, most notably in songs such as ‘Isis’ or ‘Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream’, he merges the boundaries between historical and mythical periods – as if time and dates are simply pebbles to be thrown into a sea of imagination.

In 1992, Dylan recorded World Gone Wrong, which features a version of ‘Love Henry’; a traditional folk song from the American songbook, first recorded in 1929 by Dick Justice. Originally titled ‘Young Hunting’, it originates from Scotland and can be traced as far back as the 18th century. The story recounts an eponymous protagonist, Young Hunting (later ‘Henry Lee’) who informs his lover and mother of his child that he has found another more beautiful woman. Scorned, she persuades him to drink until he is utterly inebriated. She then seduces him into the bedroom and proceeds to stab him. On ‘Tin Angel’, Dylan who is no stranger to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, rewrites this story whilst essentially keeping it about the woman’s suffering. In this version, “old Henry Lee” has an affair with a married woman. It makes for mesmerizing listening, as Dylan insouciantly amends the American songbook.

Her partner, ‘the boss’ gets wind of his wife’s extra-marital dealings and travels with a gang on horseback to where ‘the land was dull’. Scorned, he renounces his faith as he watches his wife and her love clinking glasses from afar. He then enters their den, where a western cowboy gun fight ensues. Henry Lee shoots the boss down, to the dismay of the woman who decrees Lee as a ‘fiend’. She then stabs her lover, before turning the blade on herself. Hauntingly all three are then thrown into a grave together, ‘forever to sleep’.  It is a sublime journey through bitterness and revenge, and shows that no-one knows the American folk tradition quite like Dylan.

No stranger to extended songs, the title track ‘Tempest’ extends to 14 minutes, and contains 45 verses about the Titanic. It is a subject that Dylan touched upon in ‘Desolation Row’, and musicians such as Richard Brown and the Carter Family have also previously sung about it. Reportedly Dylan fooled around one evening with the melody of the Carter Family’s ‘The Titanic’, and this masterpiece bore fruition as a result.

As dead bodies float, passengers go flying and the night-watchman lies dreaming that the Titanic is sinking. A character called Wellington awakes to see ‘every kind of sorrow’, as ‘Mothers and daughters/descending down the stairs/jumped into the icy waters’. Mister Astor kisses his wife goodbye, whilst Calvin, Blake and Wilson ‘gambled in the dark’, and others begin to fight, slaughtering each other, as they scramble for the lifeboats. The Bishop goes to help as many as he can, as ‘Davey the brothel-keeper/came out dismissed his girls’. Amidst the chaos, there is a beautiful stanza about a figure called Jim Dandy, ‘he never learned to swim/saw the little crippled child/and he gave his seat to him’. As the ship sinks the captain looks at his reflection, and cries as he remembers bygone years. It is an epically surreal nightmare.

This tragic ballad is followed by the touching and deeply moving elegy Dylan croons for his old friend, John Lennon. ‘Roll on John’ references the history of the Beatles, starting in the Liverpool docks, before moving to the red-light streets of Hamburg and then the Quarrymen in the cellar. Throughout there are several allusions to Beatles songs; ‘A Day in Life’, ‘The Ballad of John & Yoko’, and ‘Come Together’. One stanza in particular contains real tenderness and is particularly poignant: ‘your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last… Lord you know how hard it can be’, before the mournful chorus, ‘shine a light, move it on, you burned so bright/roll on John.’

Pablo Picasso once said ‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’, and Dylan does just that. To conclude his elegy he uses William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright/pray the Lord my soul to keep/In the forests of the night/Cover him over and let him sleep’.

Essentially, Tempest is one of the more varied and interesting records Dylan has produced for a while. Having developed his sound since Time Out of Mind in 1997, here he has carried on doing what he does best – singing chilling, mesmerizing and at times terrifying ballads; but he doesn’t do it like anyone else. He does it his way, and no one does it better.

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