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Bob Dylan is one of the most mystifying and enigmatic characters in music history, matched only by David Bowie in terms of both influence and a puzzling persona. Despite being an active figure for counter culture during the sixties, he has been a recluse from the scene since the early seventies, giving people a somewhat warped view of his output and person. Contrary to popular belief, the essential part of his career does not begin with The Times They Are A-Changin’ and end with Blonde on Blonde. Ever evolving, Dylan dabbled in country (the underrated New Morning and Nashville Skyline), a trilogy of gospel and religious albums, and even branched out to record a cover album of Christmas songs. Unlike the aforementioned Bowie who would latch on to trends a reproduce his own (usually superior) take on them, Dylan never lost a sense of tradition. Folk music is, after all, both deeply indebted to it’s roots and forward looking at the same time with Dylan being a living personification of this train of thought.
Two albums ago (that would be album number thirty-three), Bob Dylan fully reestablished himself as both a commercially viable entity and a modern figurehead of music. That album, Modern Times, was rooted in classic American music and Tempest is very much in the same template. However, that isn’t an insult. Much like Modern Times, Tempest is a masterclass in Americana. Dylan, as always, plays the master story teller, weaving his tales around choogling blues grooves, country rave ups, and folk balladry.
While Dylan’s lyrics are the main appeal of Tempest, one should take note of his fabulous backing band. Note-for-note, they deliver the perfect backing to Dylan’s raspy voice which really shines throughout the entire album. The huge criticism lined up against Dylan and his current voice is null and void in regards to Tempest. The music was written for his voice and perfectly flows with his grizzled and aged tone. It gives the music an edge; a rough counterpart to some of the sweeter moments.
“Duquesne Whistle”, the album’s first single and leading track, kicks things off in a lighthearted and almost whimsical manner. Probably referring to the Keystone Amtrak train service, originally named the Duquesne, which runs from New York City’s Penn Station to Pittsburgh’s Penn Station Dylan asks, “Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?” over shining hammond organs and a walking bass line. It’s quite the interesting way to start an album filled with so many dark lyrical allusions, but despite that it does give the listener the right first impression. Much like this song, Dylan is full of life. “Duquesne Whistle” springs, pops, and dances around the ears and is more lively than a lot of the music made by people fifty years younger.
Songs like “Narrow Way”, “Early Roman Kings”, and “Pay In Blood” continue this brand of bouncing blues and rock, while “Long and Wasted Years” and “Soon After Midnight” are beautiful, lovelorn ballads. The former begins with “It’s been such a long time since we loved each other when our hearts were true” and has a lifting gospel melody while the former is a simple, ’50s styled ballad. “Scarlet Town” and “Tin Angel” are the only two tracks where the music fits the depressed mood of the lyrics with Dylan taking a less melodic, more storytelling approach to these songs.
“Tempest”, the album’s title track, is a tour-de-force of Dylan’s lyrical prowess, with a grand total of forty-four verses and no choruses. His dramatic retelling of the sinking of the Titanic is set against a never changing jig. The cheerful appeal of the music is in stark contrast to the dark and violent imagery. Lyrics like “He tried to block the doorway/To save all those from harm/Blood from an open wood/Pouring down his arm” and “Dead bodies already floating/In the bottom hull” were never backed by such a happy song. However, there are fleeting moments of beauty: “Lights were holding steady/Gliding over the foam/All the lords and ladies/Heading to their eternal home”. I could wax on and on about Dylan’s lyrical genius, but I don’t think anyone would need convincing.
“Roll On John”, Tempest’s closing number, is a touching and poignant tribute to the his late friend, John Lennon. In typical Dylan fashion, the song is littered with metaphors, but even people who aren’t particularly familiar with Lennon could easily understand what a line like “Another day in your life until your journey’s end/Shine your light/Move it on/You burn so bright/Roll on John” is about. Closing out the album, it’s a nice change from the darker imagery of the rest of the album and ends the album on both a high and a positive note.
Ageism is a constant threat in music. There is a certain stigma about older musicians, that they’re past their time and should probably pack it in before they start to embarrass themselves. It is against all odds that Bob Dylan has continued his modern winning streak of albums. Musicians can hit that rare quality mark once, maybe twice, in their life time, but Dylan has found a gold mine of musical treasures. With that in mind, the idea of David Bowie being Dylan’s closest contemporary is false. If anything, Dylan is in a league of his own (or, at least, one in which Leonard Cohen is the only other member). Tempest makes yet another argument for his continued vitality and importance to both music of the past, present, and future.