Bob Dylan: a pilgrim caught in a Tempest

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?


Comments (4)

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It’s refreshing to see that you have John Thompson reviewing new music. In my opinion he is the foremost authority on spiritually minded music and artists. As far as Dylan goes, it’s amazing that an artist in his 70’s is still making waves with his music. And I don’t think he’s done yet.

Joseph Farah, writing for World News Daily, a site I find less objective than even CNN, cites Scott Marshall’s latest book on Dylan’s “spiritually” as proof that the debate over whether or not Dylan is a Christian is officially over. I doubt thet even Scott’s book makes such a definitive claim.

As much as I respect Scott Marshall’s writings on Dylan’s encounter with Christianity (we respectfully disagree on its meaning), I don’t think the opinion of Carolyn Dennis cited in his book proves anything one way or the other about Dylan’s current beliefs. Dylan is often inconsistent, even contradictory, and purposefully ambiguous when he speaks about the matter. That she mentions three movies in the conversation she remembers him means only that, if accurate, only reflect how he was feeling at certain movement. And liking a movie is not a declaration of faith. It may just be one more example of how Dylan enjoys playing with people’s minds.

Being taken with the “figure of Jesus” doesn’t mean he believes Jesus was divine rather than “only” an extraordinary human being. His friend Leonard Cohen also was also impressed with the life of Jesus but remained a Jew. He was quick to point out that he didn’t worship Jesus, although he was moved by his human example. Perhaps will have to wait until Dylan’s inevitable passing when we will learn if Bob is buried with full Jewish rites as Leonard was.

I look forward to reading what Scott has to say about Dylan’s well-known admiration of Chabad. Dylan has frequently been sighted at Chabad events and religious observances over the past 30-some years, including a recent Yom Kippur service where he was called to the Torah, something that would never be sanctioned by a Chabad rabbi if Chabad still considered him an apostate. Dylan hasn’t worshiped with the Vineyard Fellowship in decades. Nor has he ever been known to attend a so-called messianic church.

Perhaps he expressed his true point of view when he told Spin Magazine in 1985 that “Whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you’re aware of the messianic complex, that’s … important … People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now, as if he was here …”

What believing Christian would ever say that “Whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant”? His ambiguity remains. Perhaps we will learn more when his lifelong friend, Louis Kemp’s forthcoming book (written with a little help from Kinky Friedman), The Boys from the North Country: my life with Robert Zimmerman & Bob Dylan, is published. Kemp remains one of Dylan’s closest and most trusted friends and has indicated Bob is fine with the book. Kemp is an Orthodox Jew and davens with Chabad, as does his son-in-law, singer-songwriter Peter Himmelman.

I am leaving out quite a bit since I don’t have time to write more tonight. Let me end here: There is a very detailed record of Dylan’s involvement with Kemp and the Chabad of Pacific Palisades community. When the song & dance man shuffles off the mortal coil, I am guessing that only then will all our questions will be answered.

This is a beautiful summation: ‘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.’ I often think that I’d like to play this record again but when I realize that means having to hear ‘Roll On John’ and ‘Tempest’, I find myself reaching instead for ‘Together Through Life’. That said, I thoroughly agree with Mr Thompson’s thoughts on ‘Pay in Blood’ and ‘Duquesne Whistle’.

The first song, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ has its reference point in the song, ‘Slow Train’ from the “Slow Train Coming” album (1979).  The train is no longer, up around the bend.” It is here, you can hear the whistle blowing and you can see the lights and its an introduction to an album of which the theme is the judgment of God on our nation.  The selection of the word, tempest, to name the album is from the King James version of the Bible.  Job 9:17,  Psalms 11:6, Isaiah 28:2, Isaiah 29:6.  In all these verses, it is used to describe ‘judgment.’  The reason the song, ‘Tempest’ has so many verses is that Bob wishes to show that judgment is personal.  He names many that are meeting their destiny.  It’s bad if you are not ready and it comes to those people in destructive ways.  However, Bob is not going to leave us hopeless.  In the song, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ there is the line, “I hear a sweet voice calling, it must be the mother of our Lord.”  This line from the song could be referring to the gospel of John, chapter 2, verse 5 where Mary states her only ‘commandment,’ “Do whatever he (Jesus) tells you.

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