During the current Bob Dylan era – which in my mind runs from 1997’s Time Out of Mind to his new release, Tempest - each record has pointed in a certain direction, like traffic signs leading a train full of pilgrims into a dark tunnel of contemplation and endurance.
The modern Dylan sound combines jazzy, wide-open drums; upright pianos; vintage electric guitars and organs; and shuffling, pre-modern, rootsy blues, country, gospel and folk grooves. Dylan’s broken voice delivers cryptic, visually rich lyrics with all the crackle and hiss of a vintage amplifier with a blown tube and a ripped speaker cone. With a host of great musicians surrounding him, he has crafted some of the richest, most interesting music of his career.
Tempest opens with the perky shuffle of “Duquesne Whistle.” It’s a train song if ever there was one, and it comes with a sweet yet incredibly violent video. Right out of the gate this track signals that there will, of course, be much more going down on Tempest than will be immediately obvious. Does the train represent Dylan’s own life, career and eventual departure? He mines the Biblical “stranger in a strange land” motif, an old favorite and a perfectly appropriate metaphor that he obviously relates to. “The lights of my native land are glowing,” he croons. “I wonder if they'll know me next time ‘round.” Sonically, it feels like it would have been right at home on 2009’s Together through Life. It’s easy to only hear the vocal, but the underlying track shows remarkable attention to detail.
Each of the previous records of this era found a groove and inhabited it. On Tempest, that groove is murderous folk music. A 1950’s doo-wop number called “Soon after Midnight” sounds sweet at first, but then the lyrics take a decidedly twisted turn. When Dylan explores the human heart he always seems to stumble upon the scary stuff. The whole thing starts to feel like a spiritual pilgrimage through a carnival barker’s nightmare, somehow sounding more real and true than anything on the radio right now. Like a dream that you’re sure means something important, you just can’t put your finger on it.
Though much is being made of the title track - a rambling, 14-minute folk treatise on the sinking of the Titanic with obvious and spot-on implications for the decline of Western civilization and modernity in general - the soul of this set of songs is never more clear than in the muscular rock-and-roll gut punch set right in the middle of it all. “Pay in Blood” may be the best single Dylan song of this era. With a vocal snarl that should curl any screamo band’s dyed hair, Dylan becomes a menacing, hellfire prophet pounding out rebuke after rebuke like the Angel of Death himself: “I pay in blood, but not my own.”
On balance, Tempest is a fascinating if frequently inaccessible study on the human condition as seen through the eyes of a cultural anthropologist and master musicologist who is haunted by the Lord of Hosts. The term “pre-rock” is being thrown around, and it works. Though his career is the direct result of the modern musical and technological age, his heart has always seemed to be of another place and another time. This is not gospel music in the modern sense. Though Biblical imagery is to be found in nearly every track - sometimes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer - the theological lines are cryptic at best.
Dylan recently said that he had originally wanted to do a more specifically religious record this time out, but that those songs are harder to write. I do hope he gets around to that project before his train finally leaves the station. In the meantime, we have one more scrapbook from just this side of the grave to tide us over.
What Do You Think?
- How does Tempest compare to Dylan’s other recent records?
- What has been the defining characteristic of Dylan’s music throughout his career?
- What spiritual resonance has his music had for you?