Dylan releases his 35th studio album “Tempest”
At the age of 71, Bob Dylan proves there is nothing more badass than the aging legend that’s still got the willingness to do what has made him great. It’s as if Clint Eastwood was still playing the grandfather, shotgun in hand, ordering you off of his lawn instead of inviting you on to that lawn for a game of catch. On this record, Dylan has that shotgun. And it’s loaded.
Never is this idea more evident than on his latest release, “Tempest,” his thirty-fifth studio album in a catalogue that has spanned five decades. Dylan has masterfully crafted an album that is tough to categorize: at some points his imagery is as dark as any he’s released; at other times, as beautiful as any. His voice does not distract from the enjoyment of this record. It enhances it. Dylan’s grizzly tone, coupled with a weathered delivery, is advantageous to his writing as he pieces together a record littered with death, mortality, scenes of great loss, love and lunacy, all while maintaining a sort of acceptance and benign appreciation for their inevitabilities. Dylan is not like the pitcher who adapts his throwing style to match an aging arm; he is a vocalist whose fleeting vocal capacity, though most agree they have made him somewhat intolerable live, seems to bolster his words on this album. And if not, it sure as hell makes the record a lot more fun. On the track “Scarlet Town,” one of the album’s best and most interesting tracks, Dylan’s raspy drawl is as much of a tone setter as the hallowing piano line and the Appalachia-style frailing banjo. All these musical elements work together, evoking a grim picture of what appears to be a Civil War era cemetery.
When Dylan growls, “In Scarlet Town, you fight your father’s foes…You fight ‘em with whiskey, morphine and gin,” he appears to pull toward this theme. Also the lyrics “Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill” appears to be related to this idea. Dylan’s recent comments to Rolling Stone Magazine that the stigma of slavery ruined America adds an entire other layer of complexity to the meaning of this song. Not every track on the album deals with such overtly dark subject matter. Dylan eases you into the album with beginning seconds of the opening track “Duquesne Whistle.”
The track–co-written by longtime Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter—lulls you with Hawaiian-style guitar rhythms, with the air of any great movie soundtrack opening (think Big Lebowski). Soon a chugging bassline and smooth guitar strokes supplant this original feel creating the most accessible—I’m hesitant to say pop– track on this album. With the lyrics, “Listen to that Duquesne Whistle blowing/ blowing like she never blown before,” Dylan is admitting that the slow train coming has been replaced by one geared up for a final run.
The following track, “Soon After Midnight,” is a quiet tune with the air of stripped down ballad. It is the shortest track on the album, yet stands alone as the most beautiful. The same melodious guitar shows up in this song but has the opposite effect as in the last tune. Instead of keeping us firmly planted on the ground, the inherent airiness of the arrangement elevates us as we listen to the first lines “I’m searching for phrases/ to sing your praises.”
Other tracks on this album include “Narrow Road,” and “Pay in Blood,” the most straightforward rock songs on the album. Also, “Early Roman Kings,” a four-bar blues tune. “Pay in Blood” is the best song out of this bunch as the other two fail to attain the same level of excellence as the more interesting tracks.
Some of the songs on this record run a bit long, as half of the 10 songs total at least seven minutes– the longest being the title-track, “Tempest,” stretches for over 13 minutes. This could be in some people’s favor and could turn others away from this record. The song “Tin Angel,” done much in the narrative style that harkens back Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, tells a ragged tale of debauched love over nine minutes, in the end killing off all the three actors. He sings, “All three lovers together in a heap/ Thrown in grave forever to sleep.”
The last song on the album, “Roll on John,” is a clear ode to John Lennon. The organ-driven song is filled with references to Beatles songs, including “A Day in the Life,” and “Come Together.” It’s well known the relationship that existed between these legendary acts as Dylan is often credited with unleashing The Beatles, transforming their music with a blast of THC. There is something very clandestine about this song’s remarkably unremarkable structure. You get the feeling, more than with any other song on this record, he wrote this one for himself.
One can’t help but think if this were the last track of the last record he ever recorded- if that would be just fine with him? But in the end, who believes that?
Jake Williams can be contacted at