Album review: Bob Dylan – Tempest

October 4, 2012

Bob Dylan - Tempest album artworkTitle: Tempest
Artist: Bob Dylan
Record Label: Columbia
Release Date: 11 September 2012
In One Word: Deathly

The debate over whether or not song lyrics are literature has probably been going on since the Canterbury Tales. Last year PEN New England initiated an award for lyrics as a literary form separate from poetry, with prizes going to Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. Whichever side you’re on, there’s no denying that bards throughout history have used melody and rhyme to proclaim (and remember) the countless verses of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and a thousand lesser texts.

In concert, 71-year-old Bob Dylan sounds more like a bard than a singer these days. He holds the attention of his audience with long recitative phrases that are sometimes barely comprehensible— unless you already know the words by heart.  Most Dylan fans do. Dylan’s songs resonate the same way Yeats’ verse did during his time: political, radical and honest. Bob Dylan and his lyrics may someday be studied as the impetus of change for a generation of written expression.

He’s not done yet. On September 11th Dylan released his 35th studio album, Tempest. Unlike his work from the sixties and seventies, Dylan does not unleash his scathing wit on rivals, old lovers or enemies here. Tempest is a conversation with death.

Dylan compares death to a Sicilian court where the verdict is imminent doom, regardless of justice. He declares, “You won’t get out of here unscarred/ It’s a long road. It’s a long narrow way.” There is a 45 verse song about the ill-fated passengers of the Titanic, set to a bouncy, Popeye-the-sailor-man tune.

Dylan sometimes sounds as shocked as my twenty-something peers that he’s still alive. Surprise at his longevity goes as far as exasperation. “Even death has washed its hands of you,” he moans.  Collectively, the songs on Tempest suggest that Dylan’s been waiting for Death, but Death keeps standing him up. Dylan mocks the fact that he’s still kicking: “If I can’t work up to you you’ll surely have to work down to me someday. In an even darker mood he promises the listener he will, “Ship you down to the house of death/ One day you’ll ask for me— There’ll be no one else that you’ll want to see.”  In the next line, he is prepared to play a tune while the empire burns: “Bring down my fiddle, tune up my strings/ I’m gonna break it wide open like the early Roman kings.”

It’s no wonder he’s fed up. The man has been mixing up the medicine for a long time now. He refers to his long life in “Scarlet Town,” suggesting that not much has changed after generations of alleged social progress: “Uncle Tom is still working for Uncle Bill.” Perhaps he’s exasperated by fame and the muse that endlessly beckons, no matter how many times he’s tried to retire: “You try to get away, they drag you back.”

At its deepest, Tempest suggests the pain the gods suffered when they took mortal lovers. “You’ve got the same eyes as your mother does” shows that he’s watched generations pass.  He’s like Peter Pan realizing the girl he took to be Wendy is Wendy’s daughter. “Your father left you/ your mother too.” How many lovers has he parted with? How many of his children have grown and left home? Their brief lives pass and he endures alone.

He notes that “I’ve had my fun/ I’ve had my flings,” but sometimes Dylan’s tone suggests guilt, as if his blessings were undeserved.  More than once he mentions “too many lovers.” The last track on the album is addressed to John Lennon. Is this survivor’s guilt?  Why is Dylan still here when so many of his comrades are not?  “I pay in blood,” he sings, “but not my own.”

Don’t feel sorry for him. Dylan wouldn’t want you to. “I’m still alive after so many blows,” he sings. “The more I die, the more I live.” Tempest may tell you that Dylan is old but it will never let you believe he is harmless.  The record is full of the same unapologetic sensuality and fire that he was hailed for in the sixties. His biting wit has grown into biting wisdom: “You’ve given me nothing but the sweetest lies/ Now hold your tongue and feed your eyes.”

With wisdom the spirit replaces the body: “Bow the heart if not the knee.” Speaking of his too many lovers, he says “Yesterday, I could’ve run them all in the sea/ Today, even one, may be too much for me.” However, he makes sure to declare, “I ain’t dead yet—My bell still rings/ I keep my fingers crossed like them early Roman kings.”

It may sound like Dylan is looking forward to his Sicilian court date, but he’s been using this sort of vocabulary for a long time.  He recorded “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” on his first album – fifty years ago.  He was 21.  When he was 22 he wrote “Let Me Die in My Footsteps.”  He released “It’s Not Dark Yet (but it’s getting there)” in 1997, the year he began what has turned out to be a prolific late renaissance.  Maybe we have years left to listen to Dylan ponder mortality.  After all, he has been cheating the Reaper since his 1966 motorcycle accident. Perhaps Death keeps Dylan among the living because Dylan’s the only one here who understands him.

 © Sarah Flanagan, Music Vice

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Bob Dylan

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11 Responses to Album review: Bob Dylan – Tempest

  1. c. holmes on October 4, 2012 at 9:57 pm

    Best review yet that I’ve read of ‘Tempest’, and I’ve read a lot of ’em – many great lines, and I love all the quotes – the weird thing is, I’ve yet to hear the record itself – my record player is broken, and I’m broke too – thanks to Sarah for a very insightful and well written review

  2. Adam on October 5, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I second that this was a well thoughtout fantastic review. I especially love that it references the words and work without judgement and this is Dylan and judgement of his work is a silly practice anyway. At this point in his career we are just witnesses to the work and the genius. I personally enjoy this album a lot.

  3. Asa Jordan on October 6, 2012 at 4:37 am

    Typical example of a reviewer taking disparate lines from the songs out of context in order to support their theory of what the songs “mean”.For example, the line “you’ve got the same eyes as your mother does”, is followed with “if only you could prove who your father was”, and is obviously meant as an insult rather than any reflection on mortality. Trying to find social messages in these songs that bear comparison with ’60s Dylan is both a pointless and annoying practice. These songs should be enjoyed for what they are in a referential vacuum. The description of the title tracks celtic structure as “..a bouncy pop-eye the sailor man tune” is as good an example as any of ill-informed, poorly formed music criticism.

    C Holmes, may I suggest you conserve your energies into actually obtaining a copy of the album and forming your own opinion of it, rather than wasting your time reading conflicting and often redundant reviews of a music album you haven’t even heard.

  4. De Gaulle on October 6, 2012 at 5:49 am

    There are none so blind as those that will not see, or more appropriately, so deaf as those that will not hear. The reviewer has apparently listened with a lot of effort to Tempest, but all she hears is Death, Doom, mortality and survivor’s guilt(absolute nonsense), but has completely missed, apart from a small passing mention of the Sicilian Court in Early Roman Kings, the references to Sin, Judgement, Salvation, Mercy, Christ, His Mother, to the extent anyone reading this would assume Dylan was a nihilistic atheist.

  5. TimTH on October 6, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Narrow Way: “It’s a long and narrow way, if I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday”… “Look down angel, from the skies, help my weary soul to rise”… “I heard a voice at the dusk of day, saying ‘Be gentle, brother, be gentle and pray …”
    Pay in Blood: “I’ve sworn to uphold the laws of God, you can put me out in front of a firing squad … Man can’t live by bread alone, I pay in blood, but not my own …”
    “Dylan is communicating the fact that it is Christ’s blood that pays for the sins of the world, not the blood of any mortal man,” see ‘Dylan, Depression and Faith’

  6. davidw on October 6, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Tempest is just a few morsels, an afterthought, barely an album. A couple of excellent songs. The music is mostly stale, set far back into the mix, repetitive to the extreme. Some seemed rejects from previous albums like Together Through Life, one from Modern Times, maybe some reminded one of Street Legal or Knocked Out and loaded.

  7. PT on October 6, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Dylan has always said he was greatly affected by Rimbaud and especially his comment that ‘I’ is ‘another’…it is silly to assume that all these songs [or all his others for that matter] are all about Dylan himself.

  8. Elroy Huckelberry on October 6, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    The Tempest Album isn t exactly peaceful. Nor are the Dylan interviews of late. Is this a man who has any wisdom?

  9. Ishman Bracey on October 7, 2012 at 1:59 am

    Great review–of course the album can be read other ways–but still just wonderful.

    To Asa: the prove who your father was line could be an allusion to Christ/Mother Mary.

    Easily one of Dylan’s best–amazing as that is to say.

  10. Sven on January 8, 2013 at 2:23 am

    How did this article get published? This is garbage writing. I had to struggle to even read through the entire thing, and only did cause my Pops emailed me this review for some reason cause he knows I’m a big fan of Dylan. And after listening to Tempest for a couple of months now, I have to say this author misses the point entirely, and also it’s just pessimistic/leading writing (as in, the author has a point he/she wanted to get across, so he/she inserts certain points which validate it, while totally missing the bigger picture and all the while the actual review is hog wash writing itself ).

    And I mean no offense/attack to author. Sure they’re a fine person. This is a just shit writing.

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