Ever since the release of 1997’s stunning Time Out Of Mind, much critical ado has been made about the modern-day creative resurgence of Bob Dylan. The recent five star notices his new album Tempest has received from the likes of Rolling Stone and Uncut isn’t likely to quiet that talk any time soon either.
But in doing your Google due-diligence searching for Tempest online, you are more than likely to come across reviews proclaiming this album “Dylan’s best since Blood On The Tracks, Blonde On Blonde or (fill in the blank here).”
It’s not, and any such comparisons are beside the point anyway. At this late stage of the game, Bob Dylan isn’t any likelier to record a sequel to Highway 61, than Bruce Springsteen is for Born To Run. His voice is probably no longer up to the task of duplicating that kind of a sound for one thing.
Still, there is no denying that Dylan’s most recent, post-millennial work has been among the best of his entire career. Since the release of Time Out Of Mind, the closest thing to a clunker in the bunch was probably 2009’s Together Through Life, and even that album has its share of near-classics like “Forgetful Heart.” More often though, there has come amazing work that ranks right up there with his best, including at least one genuine masterpiece in 2006’s Modern Times.
Tempest mostly falls into the latter category, and is an album which over time could well prove to be regarded as another latter-day masterwork.
All of the elements for a great Dylan record are certainly in place here. You’ve got your epic storytelling, in the form of “Tin Angel” and the opus title track. There’s pointed political commentary (albeit couched in metaphoric allegory) on “Early Roman Kings.” There’s also plenty of Dylan’s trademark biting lyrical venom to be found on tracks like “Pay In Blood” and “Narrow Way.”
But as far as the songs themselves go, Dylan mines much the same territory he’s been exploring on much of his most recent work here. Nothing really stands out as anything particularly revolutionary or “new” – at least not in terms of any truly original sounding melodies.
If anything, the songs on Tempest rely heavily on the more tried and true, and otherwise traditionally familiar. In much the same way that “Rollin’ And Tumblin'” and “The Levee’s Gonna” Break” gave a post-modern spin to a pair of traditional blues standards on Modern Times, Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” gets a similar, if slightly more up-tempo facelift here on “Early Roman Kings.” The epic storytelling about the sinking of the Titanic heard on “Tempest,” likewise takes its musical cues from something that sounds (most eerily, in this case) like a post-depression waltz.
But as with any great Dylan record, the proof is in the lyrics, and on Tempest there is plenty of red meat in the wordplay to sift through and try to decipher. Perhaps in a nod from the bard to the mostly pessimistic mood of these times, these songs also represent some of Dylan’s darkest songwriting ever.
Although Dylan’s re-telling of the Titanic saga on “Tempest” has received the most critical lip service by far, the story of a love triangle gone murderously wrong on “Tin Angel” is every bit as compelling (if not quite as epic in cinematic scope). For those who prefer their Dylan blowing hot with the same righteous anger of “Idiot Wind” or “Ballad Of A Thin Man,” Dylan serves up plenty of indignation on “Narrow Way” (“Your father left you, your mother too, even death has washed it’s hands of you”) and especially “Pay In Blood” (“I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim, I got dogs could tear you limb from limb”).
On the latter, Dylan also seems to make reference to the contentious state of modern-day politics in couplets like “Another politician pumpin’ out the piss, another ragged beggar blowin’ you a kiss” and “Our nation must be saved and freed, You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?”
With this song, Dylan also makes a great case for what makes him such a great singer, despite his many, often quite vocal critical detractors in that department. His gravel-laced delivery (“The Croak”) is perfectly suited to the words, and when he phrases the lyrical centerpiece “I pay in blood, but not my own,” he doesn’t so much sing them as he does chew them up and spit them out.
Elsewhere, the political references are mostly vague ones – there is nothing on Tempest that comes close to the way Bruce Springsteen seems to be advocating for working class revolution on Wrecking Ball.
But of all these songs, “Early Roman Kings” probably comes the closest. As always, Dylan never completely tips his hand here, choosing instead to hide his meaning in lyrical ambiguity, or in this case, references to past historical figures of legend. But the similarities between the “early Roman kings in their shark-skin suits, bow-ties and buttons, high-top boots” who he goes on to describe as “peddlers and meddlers” who “buy and they sell, they destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well” and today’s modern politicos are still nonetheless striking.
The class divide pops up again in the hellish, God-forsaken landscape of “Scarlet Town,” where “the streets have names that you can’t pronounce” and “Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce.” Yet, somewhere in the midst of the beggars and flat-chested junkie whores populating the nightmare terrain of this “Scarlet Town,” there is still a little redemption to be found. One of the best lines heard on an album full of great ones, can be found in this song’s “I’m staying up late, and I’m making amends, while a smile from heaven descends, If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime, All things are beautiful in their time.”
Tempest closes on a note of reflection, and perhaps a bit of nostalgia for those days when it seemed that the music of people like Dylan and John Lennon could change the world. In paying tribute to Lennon (and if coming from the pen of a lesser songwriter), Dylan’s “Roll On John” could have easily come off as oddly timed, and perhaps even a bit trivial. But in Dylan’s hands, weaving in references to Lennon songs from “A Day In The Life” to “Come Together” as he does, the sentiment feels genuine, heartfelt and poignant. It’s a welcome little bit of light shining through the darkness that permeates so much of the rest of this album.
It’s still too early to label Tempest a masterpiece on the order of Blonde on Blonde or even Modern Times. But what can be said, without reservation, is that this is one great Bob Dylan album.