‘Tempest’ is golden
Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 02:09
It is the summer of 1965, and Bob Dylan, one of America’s most influential singer-songwriters, has just taken the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Much to the surprise of a crowd accustomed to Dylan’s exclusively acoustic solo performances, the singer is playing an electric guitar alongside an amplified backing-band. Members of the crowd begin booing and throwing stones, later calling the musician “Judas” and claiming he killed folk music. Forty-seven years and thirty albums later, the very same Robert “Bob Dylan” Zimmerman is quite accustomed to personal, professional and musical change. On Sept. 11, he released Tempest, one of his darkest, strangest, most experimental and poetic works to date that magnificently culminates Dylan’s musical process as the work of a constantly evolving genius.
The utterly dark and contemplative Tempest, which clocks in at a solid hour and eight minutes, begins with the soft, electric guitar twang of the lead single, “Duquesne Whistle,” that quickly bursts into a country-blues jam topped off by Dylan’s masterful poetry. Tempest’s opener acts as a good indication of what the listener is in for. Gone are the days of a young man preaching to those who wish to listen via an acoustic guitar and a harmonica; now a weathered spirit sings the blues of life, struggle, pain and loss.
The next track, the radiantly beautiful “Soon After Midnight,” takes a gentler stab at Drake’s motto of “You only live once,” declaring that “It’s soon after midnight and [Dylan’s] day has just begun.” Though “Midnight” is not a particularly sad song, Dylan’s innocent and tender vocal delivery threatens to draw tears. The fourth song on Tempest, “Long and Wasted Years” is in fact a depressing reflection on a wasted life and probably will cause some crying somewhere along the line.
The album’s title track is a fourteen-minute epic about the Titanic, which, like “Tin Angel,” perhaps stretches on for just a few too many verses. Structurally, it recalls Dylan’s 1965 “Desolation Row,” a twelve-minute ode to desolation, as the title suggests. Out of its near countless verses, one line stands out: “The orchestra was playing songs of faded love,” sings an innocent Dylan, summarizing Tempest in one line. The record is about faded love: old, worn, lost love for life, for work, for humanity and for individuals.
If one song had to be chosen to represent the entire album, Tempest’s fifth track, “Pay In Blood” would be an excellent choice. Musically, it displays both the quiet electric chord strumming that may be more familiar to fans of Dylan’s older classics, in addition to strong blues progressions dominant in several sections of the track. Lyrically, “Pay In Blood” is near flawless, like every other song on the album and for the most part, every other Bob Dylan song. Furthermore, Tempest’s major theme, looking back on a painful life in its entirety, is present in full vitality on “Pay In Blood.”
“Narrow Way” and “Early Roman Kings” compliment “Pay in Blood’s” instrumentation with their Chicago-Blues styles that lift riffs from classic Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf compositions. A young Dylan probably never dreamed of playing the blues, but a Tempest-era Dylan leans heavily on the genre, embodying what he calls his “transfiguration.”
Despite the major differences between Tempest and Dylan’s older work, the new record still sounds as raw as music from classics such as The Times They Are A Changin’ and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan era partially thanks to the singer’s raspy, aged voice. Dylan’s vocal performance is the one of Tempest’s flaws on an almost nonexistent list, but since Dylan’s voice has never contributed to the unparalleled beauty of his music, it remains an unimportant factor.
“Roll On John,” Dylan’s gorgeous ode to his friend and colleague, John Lennon, formerly of the Beatles and the Plastic Ono Band, is perhaps the weakest song on Tempest. Although the song discusses John Lennon’s troubled end, Dylan seemed to have slapped “Roll On John” onto the end of the record. Nonetheless, it is truly remarkable that the weakest song on this album is still an unbelievably pretty tune that only a few songwriters could hope to compose.
Tempest is the dark but triumphant reflection of Bob Dylan, a poet, a performer, an activist and an artist, upon his spiritual and musical journey through life. It is the culmination of every musical style with which he experimented, every lyrical strategy he utilized, every soulful idea he ever conjured. Fifty years after his self-titled debut, a seventy-one-year-old Bob Dylan can still release relevant, timeless, thought provoking music that touches listeners to their core.