Review by Jared Feldschreiber
“Chaos is a friend of mine,” a young Bob Dylan once quipped. Dylan’s theme of chaos is often a common motif in some of his greatest songs throughout his storied 50-year music career.
In his newest album, Tempest, Dylan depicts a fragmented world. “This is hard country to stay alive in/Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin/I’m armed to the hilt and I’m struggling hard/You won’t get out of here unscarred,” he sings in “Narrow Way.” As a musical artist, Dylan at 71 remains mischievous, satirical, yet concerned for the human condition. Professionally, he is still the roving minstrel who performs about 150 shows per year. Beneath Dylan’s mysterious exterior lies a socially conscious literary and musical mind, curious about the musings of all kinds of people.
Dylan was recently asked in the September 27th edition of Rolling Stone whether the language of the Bible still “provides imagery in the songs:” “Of course, what else could there be?” he responds. “I believe in the Book of Revelation. I believe in disclosure you know? There’s truth in all books in some kind of way. Confucius, Sun Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Koran, the Torah, the New Testament, the Buddhist sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many thousands more. You can’t go through life without reading some kind of book,” he added.
In Tempest, Bob Dylan sees a dangerous society scarred by war. “Ever since the British burned the White House down/There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town,” he also sings in “Narrow Way.” Dylan continues to blend brilliant lyricism with the soul of American music, be it blues, folk, zydeco, pop, gospel or country. He remains the “musical expeditionary,” as he describes himself in Martin Scorsese’s documentary, “No Direction Home.” Dylan’s Tempest may border on the macabre, but it still exhibits a buoyant Dylan at the height of his lyrical and musical skills.
Dylan begins Tempest with the infectious rhythm of “Duquesne Whistle.” From the outset, the listener hears a lone whistle blow, and about a minute later Dylan croons, “I can hear that Duquesne whistle blowing/ Blowing like it’s goin’ to sweep my world away/I’m gonna stop in Carbondale and keep on goin’/That Duquesne train gonna ride me night and day.” This song, more than any other on the album is self-referential, as Bob Dylan remains committed to the adage, “it is about the journey, not the destination,” a Beatnik philosophy of human experience.
Tempest largely deals with the fragility of human experience and the unpredictability of fate. This is no more evident than in the song “Tempest,” which describes the 1912 Titanic tragedy. In a somewhat humorous twist, Dylan blends fact, myth, and even a cameo by “Leo” (a nod to the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in James Cameron’s 1997 film). The 14-minute song is a lyrical marvel: “The pale moon rose in its glory/Out on the Western town/She told a sad, sad story/Of the great ship that went down…” the track begins. Dylan describes the ship’s sinking in stark detail: “Engines then exploded/Propellers they failed to start/The boilers overloaded/The ship’s bow split apart.” The song is a perfect microcosm of society crumbling, and speaks to the frailty of human existence. “They waited at the landing/And they tried to understand/But there is no understanding/On the judgment of G-d’s hand.”
Dylan remains the consummate songwriter, openly honest, even reflecting about his own mortality. “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings” he barks in his Muddy Waters-inspired, “Early Roman Kings.” Dylan hearkens back to the ancient Roman Empire, a once proud but ill-fated supremacy. “All the early Roman Kings in the early, early morn/Comin’ down the mountain distributing the corn/Speedin’ through the forest racing down the track/You try to get away they drag you back.”
In the closing track “Roll on John” Dylan eulogizes his late friend John Lennon, empathizing with the famous Beatle’s bout with fame and censorship. In William Blake-like imagery, Dylan sings for his fallen friend: “Sailing through the trade-winds bound for the sun/Rags on your back just like any other slave/They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth/Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave…” Dylan sings with great empathy and compassion for his comrade who was murdered outside the Dakota Building in New York. His affinity to Lennon can be compared as both were seen as the preeminent songwriters of their day and it is Dylan who has survived. They both understood the considerable pressures to fame and expectations, to a mostly stifling media. On various levels, the song easily could be called, “Roll on Bob.”
Dylan’s characters in Tempest are often evil, jealous and corrupt. “We looted and we plundered, on distant shores/Why is my share not equal to yours /Your father left you, your mother too/Even death has washed its hands of you,” he taunts in “Narrow Way.” “In Scarlet Town” he scowls, “You fight your father’s foes/Up on the hill, a chilly wind blows/You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in/You fight ‘em with whiskey, morphine and gin.” Dylan brings the inner turmoil and man’s belligerence to the forefront, exhibiting the pains often felt by those on the battlefield. This is one song that Dylan speaks to the psychological tempests of a soldier.
Tempest is filled with complex lyrics, yet Dylan is just as effective delivering simple stanzas, like in “Long And Wasted Years” about a dissolved marriage: “Two trains running side by side/Forty miles wide/Down the Eastern Line/You don’t have to go/I just came to you/Because you’re a friend of mine.” The remarkable aspect of Tempest is Dylan’s uncanny ability to coalesce lyrics of rage with tenderness. In “Soon After Midnight,” Dylan sings, “My heart is cheerful/It’s never fearful/I’ve been down on the killing floors/I’m in no great hurry/ I’m not afraid of your fury/I’ve faced stronger wars than yours.” Defiant lyrics such as these remind fans of earlier works like “Ballad in Plain D,” a song he wrote about his separation to an early girlfriend Suze Rotolo. Dylan has always captured so well the inner complexities felt of breaking up with a loved one.
In the best track of the album, the menacing ballad “Tin Angel,” Dylan describes a triple murder. The song depicts a revenge story of a powerful man of a clan who learns of his wife’s betraying him. He seeks revenge and seeks to kill her lover. “Well, he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword/He renounced his faith, he denied his Lord/Crawled on his belly put his ear to the wall/One way or another put an end to it all.” Here, Dylan brilliantly captures the inner tempests of one man’s feelings of betrayal, and the song is a staggering ballad that ends rather shockingly.
The latter-day Bob Dylan is remarkably growing as a musical artist. Spiritually, he seeks clarity to an otherwise chaotic, dangerous and unpredictable world. (It is no coincidence the album was released on September 11th). “Our nation must be saved and freed/You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?”, he chides in “Pay in Blood.” Throughout Tempest, Dylan captures rage vividly in song, yet often delivers wistful and tender lyrics. In his song “Tempest” the watchman on the Titanic is the only person who knows the ship will sink. It is as if Dylan – like a true bard- is that very watchman: a man acutely aware that chaos within society will beget impending doom.