On 'Tempest,' Bob Dylan reaches world's end

By Matthew Fulco
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, September 21, 2012
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Bob Dylan's new album "Tempest" is bloody and brooding, a steely exorcism of the grimmest storytelling traditions in the American musical canon. On the 35th studio album of his 50-year career, the celebrated singer-songwriter crafts a haunting collection of tales steeped in tragedy imagined or retold ― murder ballads, the sinking of the Titanic passenger liner, and an encomium to John Lennon ― against a rousing musical backdrop of old-time country and folk, electric blues and obscure mid-20th century pop.

Indeed, much of the music has a canny vintage flavor. It could have been lifted ― or was, charge critics ― from a 78 RPM record blaring in a Depression-era speakeasy or juke joint in the wake of World War II. It neatly suits Dylan's cracked, gravelly delivery and he and his band's loose, fiery playing.

As a lyricist, the 71-year-old Dylan remains enchanting, his acrid wit infusing "Tempest's" ten bleak compositions with a resilient irony, a device much of his best work contains.

On the breezy opener "Duquesne Whistle," the band swings, a train rattles down the tracks and Dylan croons, "You're the only thing alive that keeps me goin'/You're like a time bomb in my heart."

Ticking away, it's a harbinger of trouble to come, as the narrator in the next song "Soon After Midnight" casually uncorks his malice to a catchy melody that could have been the hook on a hit single back in the 1950s. You almost want to sing along. With a heart that's "cheerful, never fearful," he muses, "A gal named Honey took my money" while Charlotte is "a harlot, dresses in scarlet." As for a perceived rival, the narrator casually threatens him with murder in rhyme: "Two-timin' Slim, who cares about him/ I'll drag his corpse through the mud."

Celebrities fare no better. Leonardo DiCaprio, the American actor and star of the 1997 film "Titanic," appears in Dylan's epic interpretation of the seaborne tragedy that saw 1,600 perish with a sketchbook in hand, succumbing to madness as the ship sinks. Dylan quipped in a recent interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, "I don't think the song would be the same without him."

For better or worse, irony is the only redemption Dylan offers on "Tempest." The quiet ruminations on mortality that have highlighted his strongest work over the past fifteen years lay dormant. Absent too are the light-hearted blues shuffles that made up the bulk of "Together Through Life," his previous album of original songs, released in 2009. That year, Dylan even put out a collection of Christmas songs.

"Tempest," rather, feels like a fully-realized exploration of the darkest undertones of the masterful "Modern Times" album from 2006. There lie the rumblings of the storm to come. On the penultimate track "The Levee's Gonna Break," Dylan revived the 1927 blues song about the most destructive river flood in American history. And on the allusory closer "Ain't Talkin'," the wandering narrator, on his way to "the last outback at the world's end," vows to slaughter his opponents in their sleep.

That sense of violent, pervading doom runs to the core of "Tempest," where a savage frontier justice prevails. The characters on this album not felled in the bloody mayhem are out to save themselves or die trying.

On the sprightly rocker "Pay in Blood," the embattled narrator vows violent revenge on his enemies, leering, "I could stone you to death for the wrongs you done." Awash in loathing, he continues, "I'll drink my fill and sleep alone/I pay in blood, but not my own."

In "Early Roman Kings," villains clad in "sharkskin suits and bowties" plunder along to a driving blues riff straight from the Muddy Waters songbook. "They destroyed your city/They'll destroy you as well," Dylan warns wryly.

But the most climactic turmoil lays ahead in a riveting one-two crescendo that almost renders the closing "Roll on John" an afterthought.

As a menacing bass line pounds, Dylan launches into "Tin Angel," a grisly nine-minute tale of hot-blooded murder. Twisting his gnarled voice into a venomous sneer, Dylan takes us to the mansion of a nameless "boss," who arrives home one night to discover his wife has run off with her lover Henry Lee, "chief of the clan." Enraged, the boss takes off in pursuit of her on horseback. His thirst for retribution overwhelming, he pushes on furiously even as his men desert him. Arriving at Henry Lee's home, he "renounces his faith" and "denies his Lord." Cutting the electricity to the house, the boss sees what lies in store for him, his wife and Lee: "He leaned down, cut the electric wire/Stared into the flames and he snorted the fire."

From there, Dylan abruptly shifts course, finally arriving at the album's centerpiece and title track. To the buoyant tune of an Irish waltz, the Titanic embarks once again on its maiden voyage. In graceful verse, Dylan brings to life the 100-year-old seaborne tragedy. The song's 14 minutes and 45 verses flow seamlessly, carried by a wistful melody and Dylan's vivid phrasing. The grace of the performance nearly belies the scale of the disaster. Especially poignant are the second and third verses, resonating with Dylan's sense of the ironic: "T'was the fourteenth day of April/Over the waves she rode/Sailing into tomorrow/To a golden age foretold/The night was black with starlight/The seas were sharp and clear/Moving through the shadows/The promised hour was near."

"Tempest" comes to a quiet close with Dylan's lyrical remembrance of John Lennon. It's a fine coda to a compelling collection of songs, as after five decades, Bob Dylan continues to richen and shape America's musical lexicon.

Matthew Fulco is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn

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