BOB DYLAN: TEMPEST (2012)
1) Duquesne Whistle; 2) Soon After Midnight; 3) Narrow Way; 4) Long And Wasted Years; 5) Pay In Blood; 6) Scarlet Town; 7) Early Roman Kings; 8) Tin Angel; 9) Tempest; 10) Roll On John.
So, what does it take to put Dylan back in «grand» mode these days? Song lengths expanded — check. Deep folk roots revisited — check. Focus on lyrical intertextuality — check. Stern, Old Testament-worthy singing tones — check. What couldn't have hurt, perhaps, would be a little more emphasis on musical backing and production values, but since Bob himself is once again listed as producer (he even dropped the «Jack Frost» nickname for the occasion), it is perhaps better to be minimalistic. And he wouldn't want to, or be able to, pull a Daniel Lanois all by himself anyway.
After the relative disappointment of Together Through Life, Tempest is clearly a return to... return to spirit, rather than form. If at all possible, Bob's voice seems to have taken another round of beating over those three years — and so has his chord-assembling, what with just about every song on the album riding the same mini-groove from top to bottom, and most of the mini-grooves «borrowed» from other people's songs at that. So anybody who claims that «Dylan is back in top form!» should probably rent a time machine and go back a few decades just to remind oneself what «top form» actually means. But the thing that got critics and fans alike heap up another heap of praise here is not «form» — it is attitude. The one thing that really has not changed one bit about Dylan in fifty years is that he is still a great manipulator. He may forget about it every once in a while, but on Tempest, he does not forget.
In fact, the first signs of manipulation are right there at the very beginning — ʽDuquesne Whistleʼ opens deceptively low-key-ish, like something your local jugband outfit would practice on your porch. Then, several bars later, the band suddenly kicks in with full force: the main melody does not undergo too much of a change, but the listener gets a jolt — «okay, thank God, the man is still rocking and I'd already started worrying that he'd given up on it...». Now you already feel a little predisposed towards the song, and the entire album with it. Even if there is really nothing about the melody of ʽDuquesne Whistleʼ that you haven't already heard a million times.
Next thing you discover is that the darkness is back. You kind of expected that when you saw the word Tempest, but you'd never believe this guy in advance, right? None of the songs are really «tempestuous», but then, musically, Dylan has always been more of a harbinger of tempest (ʽAll Along The Watchtowerʼ, etc.) than a master of tempest, and from that angle, Tempest, in spots, is even scarier than Time Out Of Mind — the latter was, after all, extremely personal and intimate, whereas Tempest pours it out rather than keeps it within.
Two dirge-like epics stand out in particular. ʽScarlet Townʼ flows on like a funeral procession, with a mournful lead violin part (vaguely reminiscent of Rivera's parts on Desire — and is it a pure coincidence that her name was «Scarlet»?) and the guitar, piano and banjo assembled in a drony three-part rhythm that is best associated with barren earth and scattered ashes. Lyrics-wise, there are numerous references to sickness, death, the end, and so forth, but, surprisingly enough, the words on the whole do not paint any properly «apocalyptic» picture; in fact, the protagonist clearly likes it in «Scarlet Town», whatever that be a metaphor for (life here on Earth, most probably). We might suspect a thin streak of masochism here, but then, all of us who like ourselves some of that heavy-shit depressing music are already masochists, in more than one way.
For sheer unusualness, however, and the honor of hitting the heaviest upon first listen, I will probably single out ʽTin Angelʼ. Now that you think about it, it was a perfectly organic choice for Dylan to take a centuries-old murder ballad (ʽMatty Grovesʼ, which most people probably know through the unforgettable Fairport Convention version with Sandy Denny on vocals; topical similarity to ʽBlack Jack Daveyʼ detected, too, but is less self-evident) and turn it upside down — in the place of «husband kills lover and wife», we now have a more complex scheme of «lover kills husband, wife kills lover and herself» — it is even a little surprising how he got around to doing it so late in his career. (Maybe he holds the opinion that all murder ballads should not be written at an earlier age than seventy).
Anyway, there is exactly one melodic hook to the song — that deep, haunting «zooop» on Tony Garnier's bass part that you get to hear approximately forty times over the song's nine minutes, and one which you probably already heard far more times incorporated into one too many bass solo parts on classic and not so classic jazz records; but yes, minimalistic genius strikes again, as that little bit of bass twiddle becomes a key part in creating a working atmosphere of dread and doom. The tale takes nine minutes to unwind, but that bass part, it sort of lets you know from the very beginning that the Fates have already woven the stuff to completion, and everybody is going to be dead when we get to the end. You don't even have to know anything about ʽMatty Grovesʼ, or about the murder ballad tradition in general, to get that sense. And don't forget to throw in the grim banjo part as the bass's only lonely counterpart — the equivalent of a funeral church bell. My only problem is: what the hell is an «electric wire» doing in the context of this song? And «lowered himself down on a golden chain»? Were they making love in some sort of James Bond setting, or am I too dumb to even begin asking those sorts of questions?...
Strangely enough, the title track, in comparison to those two, does not sound «dark» at all — even if, or maybe because, it is an almost literal retelling of the story of the Titanic, cast in the form of a 14-minute long Irish ballad, accordion and fiddle at the ready. The primary asset of the tune is its surprise value. Fourteen minutes? Irish ballad? Fiddle? Titanic? Oh God, he couldn't have caught on to James Cameron now, could he? No, no, hope it's at least Roy Ward Baker (for that matter, Roy Ward Baker had just died in 2010; another coincidence?)... and so on. Outside of that, I am not sure what to feel or think — the song feels like a laborious stylistic exercise more than anything else, and even lyrically, its complete straightforwardness and evasion of any unexpected twists or metaphors is in sharp contrast with the rest of the album. Where ʽTin Angelʼ was a stylistic transformation, a typically Dylanesque twist on a traditional form, ʽTempestʼ almost seems bent on explicitly purging out the Dylanesque. It is curious, but it is hardly likely to end up on anybody's top list of Bob favorites.
Individually, the rest of the songs range from almost intentionally annoying (ʽNarrow Wayʼ — seven minutes of a grumbly four-note blues riff on endless repeat is too much for me; ʽEarly Roman Kingsʼ — another post-modernist massacre of an old groove, the honor going to Muddy Waters' ʽMannish Boyʼ this time) to endearingly sentimental (ʽSoon After Midnightʼ; ʽLong And Wasted Yearsʼ — the kind of late-evening balladry that he'd introduced on Love & Theft), and in between you have at least one oddball musical hybrid, ʽPay In Bloodʼ, a menacing, but ultimately toothless roots-rocker whose melody actually changes — for a change! — from verse to bridge and then once again from bridge to chorus, yes, with actual chord changes that first put the song into «threatening» mode one minute (0:27) and then into «soothing» mode (0:48) not a minute too soon. In between those two extremes, the song sort of sounds like a rip-off of the Stones' ʽHand Of Fateʼ, though, and, (not) knowing Bob, I cannot guarantee that this is simple coincidence, either. The guy's memory is a bottomless well, there is no telling what is going to be fished out next — and he's exacerbated it by fighting Dylanologists all his life.
There is no simple logical explanation, either, of why he deemed it wise to end the album with a metaphor-drenched, but easily guessable tribute to John Lennon (ʽRoll On Johnʼ). I'd like to think that, perhaps, he thought the time had finally come to invoke his spirit — perhaps even to «sacrifice» to his spirit, yielding the album's coda to the memory of a dead hero — you know, in the good old «times are so shitty, we need a John Lennon here to set them right» kind of way... but I guess the truth is really that he probably just "heard the news today oh boy" on some John-related topic and suddenly realized he'd all but forgotten to write a John Lennon song in the past thirty years. Truth be told, ʽRoll On Johnʼ is far more flattering to John's memory than John's ʽServe Yourselfʼ was flattering to Bob back in 1979 — and there's not even a single denigrating reference to Yoko on the list!
On the whole, Tempest unquestionably deserves a thumbs up, but buyer beware: sixty-eight minutes of this stuff will be properly appreciated only by somebody who can at least partially put it in its proper context. If you know little of Bob Dylan, less of Muddy Waters, and nothing at all about Irish folk or murder ballads, this will be nothing more than a horrendously raspy old man gurgling out verbose stuff over simplistic, monotonous melodies — quite a relevant warning for 2012, a year when there are music-listening teenagers around who were born in the year of Dylan's third (fourth?) creative revival. And Tempest I wouldn't list as a fifth creative revival — it is more of a staying-afloat record, showing that the old guy still has some interesting things to say in some interesting way, which, really, is far more than we could feel ourselves justified to demand. For that matter, ʽRoll On Johnʼ could just as well be ʽRoll On Bobʼ. Heck, maybe it was ʽRoll On Bobʼ and he just felt a modesty attack at the last minute. Doesn't matter. Just keep on manipulating us, Mr. Zimmerman.
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