Bob Dylan already shot down reviewers’ notions that his 35th studio record, “Tempest”, has anything to do with a Shakespearean-styled Prospero farewell to magic and music. But leave it to Dylan to try to slyly ‘dissociate’ the record from one of his most beloved antecedents, by naming the antecedent himself in the lead-up to the official release date. (For the record, Dylan said, “Shakespeare’s last play was called ‘The Tempest’. It wasn’t called just plain ‘Tempest.'”) But that doesn’t mean the bard of songwriting isn’t conjuring that famed upstart. The masterpiece of Dylan’s new record, the song “Tin Angel” (which seems to borrow a few lines from the old ballad “Gypsy Davy”), begins in lore and ends in tragedy. It’s one of those wandering Dylan songs, with a steady and repetitive groove, which allows Dylan to glide his words across it like he did in “Highlands” from off 1997’s “Time Out of Mind”. It’s a song about a love triangle that ends in a heap of dead bodies. It’s a revenge song about a man who goes on the hunt, chasing after his double-crossing woman and her newly-discovered lover. The story and lyrics exist somewhere between “Hamlet”, Cormac McCarthy’s sinister “Blood Meridian”, the stark visual carnage of the murderous “The Proposition”, and the foreboding shade of the ancient Appalachian ode, “O Death”.
The song goes in and out of straight narrative, asides carrying a whiff of sulfur just as strong as gunsmoke. Conversations fly back and forth between lover and man scorned — the singer assuming the words of his own characters, in a style like something out of Robert Frost’s poem, “Home Burial”. “Tin Angel” is the ultimate revenge piece. Randolph Scott riding high in Budd Boetticher’s film “Decision at Sundown” (1957), also an allegory of a man wronged. The song is dark and highly lyrical, fueled by the anger of a desperado, burning hot as a sun-baked desert. The song traverses time. At first the image of the man is straight out of the Civil War era (“Old Henry Lee chief of the clan”), then the Crusades (“Well he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword / He renounced his faith he denied his lord”) — finishing with the more literal gunslinger story that’s as vivid and brutal as the most deranged Spaghetti Western: “The gun went boom and the shot rang clear / The first bullet grazed his ear / Second ball went right straight in / And he bent in the middle like a twisted bin / He crawled to the corner and he lowered his head / He grabbed the chair and he grabbed the bed / It would take more than needle and thread / Bleeding from the mouth he’s as good as dead.” “Tin Angel” is easily one of the best songs Dylan has ever written, and that’s saying a lot.
But that’s not the only monster track on this record with one of the meatiest middles Dylan’s recorded in years. There’s the seven-and-a-half minute long ode to The Beatles’ frontman John Lennon, “Roll On John”. There’s also the nearly 14-minute title track about the sinking of the Titanic. It’s written in over 50 ambitious verses without a chorus, where Dylan finds a beautiful way to mix sentiment and realism in re-telling a story about lost lives: “Dave the brothel keeper / Came out, dismissed his girls / Saw the water getting deeper / Saw the changing of his world.”
So maybe Dylan isn’t being coy, and the name of the record is exactly what it means: a torrential wind, a hail storm, an upheaval, passion, destruction, the killing fields, a violent blast, or maybe it’s just the announcement that he’s still here in all his song-writing fury, as expressed in the cheeky “Early Roman Kings” verse, “I ain’t dead yet / My bell still rings” — a song that comes from the old Chess Record “Mannish Boy” tradition of bluesman Muddy Waters. The album opener, “Duquesne Whistle”, is a hobo train-ride ditty full of swing, a self-image Dylan loves to project, and that he’s employed often in songs from “Only a Hobo” to “Freight Train Blues”. Dylan’s gruff vocals mix with ripping guitar, organ, motored by the elegant shuffle of Tony Garnier’s upright bass, pushing the song along at the steady click-click of a railroad tie.
A few reviewers have already written about the world vision of this record as being dark and violent. (An astute Dylan fan can appreciate the release date coming on the day of remembrance of 911.) What stands out about this record is Dylan’s movement away from the inconsequential tunes fans have associated with his partnership with former Grateful Dead member, Robert Hunter, whose only credit appears in the lovely “Duquesne Whistle”. This record is Dylan resurrecting his lyrical gifts. Take the slow-rolling, bluesy “Scarlet Town”, which should perk the ears of many Dylan fans who’ve come to associate that color (think of 1983’s “Jokerman” or ) with the artist’s other anxieties of influence: Christ, the Bible, literature, and the nature of kings and kingdoms — which give his lyrics a prophetic edge, gilded with the weight of ancient truth. Dylan borrows a bit of inspiration from John Greenleaf Whittier: “Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours / There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers / Beggars crouching at the gate / Help comes, but it comes too late / By marble slabs and in fields of stone / You make your humble wishes known / I touched the garment, but the hem was torn / In Scarlet Town, where I was born.” Not surprisingly, religion drips from the lyrics of a number of these new songs, like the verse in “Pay In Blood”, where Dylan sings about how, “Man can’t live by bread alone” and how he’s “sworn to uphold the lies of god …”
Don’t get me wrong, this is a dark record. Darkly beautiful. And the first I can recall where Dylan comes out with serious fighting words, talking about a guy who is a “bastard” in “Pay In Blood” or how the characters in “Tin Angel” summon the descriptive: “greedy-lipped wench” and “a gutless ape with a worthless mind” and how in “Early Roman Kings” the protagonist finds himself saying, “I can dress up your wounds with a blood-clotted rag / I ain’t afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag.” This wild record is about a world where politicians continue to lie, just like they did in the 1960s — where most people are greedy and driven by self-interest (excepting the one man in “Tempest” who gives up his seat in the life-raft for a crippled child) and where one has to take a defensive stance just to get by, like in the song “Narrow Way”: “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.” Dylan’s latest record isn’t a shelter from the storm, but the storm itself.