Album review: Bob Dylan’s chilling yet playful ‘Tempest’
Half a century after Bob Dylan‘s self-titled debut comes the bard’s 35th studio album, “Tempest.” I’ve got my tools nearby — a scotch-taped copy of “Chronicles” for reference, a warm bottle of Empire Sarsaparilla for relief and a tourniquet for no reason at all. We can’t stop the blood, so let’s hash this thing out.
The first track on “Tempest,” “Duquesne Whistle,” possesses a similar pace and sensibility to “Thunder on the Mountain,” the first track on “Modern Times,” from six years ago, insofar that you can hear something recognizably aged faintly modernized for yet another decade. Remarkable. Timeless. Fresh.
“Tempest” is versatile, perhaps even chaotic. “Early Roman Kings” offers us a standard foot-stomping blues song with an organ channeling Muddy Waters or Bo Diddley, but with darker lyrics. I will say that, sure, this album is “dark’” compared to the rest of the canon, but I also received it to be not so much dark as chillingly playful.
Three tracks in, “Narrow Way” thrives on a beautiful, unpolished riff ala Mike Bloomfield. It also smells a little of Muddy, and Dylan appears to have mediated a meeting between the blues and complex lyricism.
“Soon After Midnight” feels like “Tonight, I’ll Be Staying Here With You” matured and morphed from an innocent beef bouillon cube into a stout poison stew. It starts sweetly with “searching for phrases to sing your praises,” and then dabbles with bodies dragged in mud, and you wonder what the hell is going on? Resonant. Thick.
Nothing to take lightly.
I love everything about “Pay in Blood”: “I got something in my pocket, make your eyeballs swim / I got dogs could tear you, limb from limb…I pay in blood, but not my own.” The song is tough, unforgiving and raw. It’s a party and all the body bags are invited.
And then we have “Tempest,” the song. An interminable ironman about America’s favorite nostalgic disaster. And Leo. The Titanic sure has got plenty of attention, and this song will garner some too. The content is so familiar it’s nearly familial. To me, it’s just another topical song pulled from the wreckage of America’s history, another story Dylan found in print newspapers of years gone by. Only this time, we all know it. It’s a palatable narrative.
In “Chronicles,” Dylan writes about his youthful appetite for such dated news:
The madly modern world was something I took little interest in. It has no relevancy, no weight. I wasn’t seduced by it. What was swinging, topical and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking, the Galveston flood, John Henry Harding shooting a man on the West Virginia line. All this was current, played out and in the open. This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.
“Tempest,” of course, was also the last work of William Shakespeare, which immediately prompts symbologists, conspiratorial theorists, line cooks on smoke break and barstool philosophers to speculate. Is it? Could it be?
One thing is certain: If you like Shakespeare, you enjoy nearly everything he wrote, although you might only be familiar with a couple of his more famous works and covered renditions. Same goes for the bard from Hibbing.
“Tempest” will not disappoint. It lives up to the high bar set by “Time Out of Mind” (1997) “Love and Theft” (2001) and “Modern Times” (2006). “Tempest” is timeless and tragic — full of murder ballads and nonsense, sinking ships and blood, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and more blood.
And so I put the dagger to your heart and say choose.
Choose “Hamlet” or “Highway 61 Revisited.”
Choose “Othello” or “Oh Mercy.”
“Macbeth” or “Modern Times.”
“Twelfth Night” or “Time Out of Mind.”
“Love’s Labour’s Lost” or “Love and Theft.”
“The Taming of the Shrew” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
“The Tempest” or “Tempest.”
Bill or Bob.