Frontier Psychiatrist

Not Dark Yet, But Gettin’ Stormy: A Review of Bob Dylan, Tempest

Posted on: September 11, 2012

Bob Dylan, The Tempest

Bob Dylan, The Tempest

I might need another 10 years before I can write accurately about Bob Dylan’s new album Tempest, which comes out officially today. I felt similarly about 2001’s Love and Theft, which I listened to when my future wife and I drove back across the country together from California on a pilgrimage towards the remains of New York and our lonely apartment in Queens. We had been booked on a flight for the morning of September 11. My grandmother called me a few hours before the flight and said: “I don’t think you’ll be flying back.” It was impossible to listen to Love and Theft on that cross-country drive (and for years afterward) without hearing the prescient echoes of our national apocalypse. “High Water” was rising. “Sky’s full of fire.” “The Twins [were] coming to town.” I don’t know what will happen that will make many lines on Tempest resonate with perhaps never-intended wisdom and deep social and personal revelation, but I know something will happen.

Tempest, Dylan’s 35th studio album, is much better than his recent output. The two albums between Love and Theft and the new record —Modern Times and Together Through Life— were decent (okay, Modern Times was superior, and I’m intentionally not mentioning the sick joke Christmas album, and not quite counting the excellent Tell Tale Signs alternate takes and other gems compellation).  Tempest is as vein-draining as Time Out of Mind, often as lyrically dense as Love and Theft, with a new and thrilling element included: Dramatic Storytelling.

On several songs, the story is nearly linear, balladic, and harkens back to Dylan’s original progenitors, the weird folk artists of the early 20th Century and those Romantic poet balladeers whose tradition Dylan keeps up when he isn’t dabbling in Rimbaudery and Gingsburgian excess. Last week, I used “Tin Angel”—a moody murder ballad about the Big Boss catching Henry Lee with his woman, ending with a triple bloody death— in teaching my 9th grade English class to have them practice paying attention to plot and imagery in a short story. It worked well, especially after we cleared up the confusion about Bob Dylan and Bob Marley being the same person.

Bob Dylan is not Bob Marley

Linear or not, most of the songs on Tempest are what we now call Dylanesque. There is a built in hypnotic effect. The musical forms are simple and repetitive; lyrics are stacked along sonic lines in layers, collage-like, so that the only way to get the full impression of a song is to step back from it and squint one’s ears until one’s brain is refocused. “I think when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned”— a line from “Long and Wasted Years,” is interesting on its own, but gathers up into a storm of meanings with the lines before and after it. That song leapt out at me on first listen for its loping seductiveness and broad sweeping melodrama.

Dylan’s lyrical trademark is his seamless melding of specificity and ambiguity, and it is in full effect on Tempest. “She’s smiling through the fence at me” (in “Duquesne Whistle”) is immediate and precise, but the “she” in question is a huge mystery—all the better for us to fill in our own “she” to solve it. The specificity shows us the door and the ambiguity opens it for us and makes it possible to hear Dylan’s songs as directly addressing one’s most personal problems as well as global ones. “We won’t get out of here unscarred” he sings and we all nod, because he reminds us of our own deep wounds and everyone else’s who has ever lived. There are some songs on Tempest that seem to keep the door closed—love songs like “Soon After Midnight” or the aforementioned murder ballad “Tin Angel,”  which tells a very simple story with consistent if archetypical characters. “Tempest” (the song) is on initial listen unambiguously about the sinking Titanic— The Astors and the band and the Captain (and maybe even Leo, a.k.a. Leonardo DeCaprio from the movie?) included. Then some shift happens and all the people with real names start to sound like characters from “Desolation Row.” Suddenly, they only exist to stand for something greater. All these people that you mention, Mr. Dylan, are real, but they have nothing to do with the sinking Titanic and work more like friends who show up in one’s dreams. They are stand-ins for ideas, providers of one’s own needs, masks not faces. They are so well defined that they are nearly invisible.

The last song on Tempest, “Roll on John,” is a genuine collage, using John Lennon’s lyrics verbatim (“Come together over me”), with a garnish of William Blake (“Tyger, Tyger burning bright”), to concoct a meditation on… well, I’m not sure yet. And when I am, it will change. Ask me in 10 more years.

Though he has put out a string of solid albums since his famously flakey 1980’s, his own generation is still slow to embrace the current incarnation of Dylan, preferring the youth in dark glasses who held press conferences in hotel rooms holding giant light bulbs and trading witty barbs with square reporters. Their biggest complaint: His Voice. The same generation that defended his raspy whine when their parents told them he couldn’t sing now bemoans his laconic growl. David Bowie in his 1971 song “Song for Bob Dylan” described a voice of sand and glue, which now might be updated to describe a voice of gravel and rubber cement. When Bob Dylan sings on the first song on Tempest that the Duquesne Whistle is going to “blow his world away,” his voice makes clear that the world is gone already and sweet devastation is all that remains. In the same song Dylan sings “I wonder if they’ll know me next time around.” He could be talking to his generation. To translate:  I’ve been ripped apart by the ravaging effects of aging and my rock and roll poet lifestyle, just like you’ve been torn asunder by your own lives. If you can’t deal with that, back off. If you recognize the value of wear and tear, step right up and look in my funhouse mirror—that’s you as well as me in there.

On his latest album, a younger man with a younger voice shouldn’t be singing these songs. The current Dylan is required. I don’t know if I’m old enough to listen to it yet, either, but I like what I hear so far.

Jim Knable is a Brooklyn-based writer of plays, songs, prose, and the occasional screenplay. In 2011, his novel Sons of Dionysus was serialized on Frontier Psychiatrist in both text and audio format. His plays have been produced at MCC Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Soho Rep, NYC’s Summer Play Festival and other regional theaters, and have been published by Broadway Play Publishing, Dramatic Publishing, Samuel French, Smith & Kraus and Playscripts, Inc. He released his solo album Miles in 2000 and Redbeard (2006) and Golden Arrow (2009) with his band The Randy Bandits. He moonlights as a college and high school teacher.

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Sons of Dionysus

A Transmedia Novel of Myth, Mirth, and the Magical Excess of Youth.