James S. Spiegel
The Light's Still Burning
Rock music is the quintessential art form of youth. By the time they turn forty nearly all rock stars are well past their creative prime, if not entirely burned out. But not Bob Dylan. The exception to many rules, he radically defies this trend as well, having recorded much of his best music since his mid-fifties. Dylan's latest album, Tempest, continues a remarkable string of fresh and original albums dating back to his resurgent Time Out of Mind in 1997. Like that album and the others since (excepting his eccentric 2009 Christmas album), Tempest has a decidedly blues flavor, while dipping into classic American musical styles including Western swing and country-folk balladry. The songs bear inspiration from American musical icons such as Hoagy Carmichael, Muddy Waters, and the Carter Family, proving again that the paradoxical key to achieving artistic timelessness is to be firmly girded in the history of one's art form.
Dylan's voice is now a raspy growl, tattered from a half century of singing, including the last two decades of his Never Ending Tour. But for all the wear and tear, he is no less effective in conveying emotion and delivering memorable melodies. And Dylan's oft-overlooked genius as a producer (credited pseudonymously as Jack Frost) is evident in the way he manages his vocal limitations, as he wisely chose to couch his vocals in equally gritty guitar tones, played by his long-time touring guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball. They and the rest of the band play with restraint, providing subtle melodic flourishes throughout, always in service of the songs and seemingly with a keen understanding of Dylan's vision for each one.
As for the songs on Tempest, they display what are now recurrent themes in the later Dylan—regret, injustice, world-weariness, and exasperation with other people, especially women. These themes emerge in the poignant "Long and Wasted Years," which features a sublime, rolling melody over which Dylan speaks more than he sings: "It's been such a long, long time since we loved each other and our hearts were true. One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you." But rather than lapsing into sentimentality, the song morphs into scattered reflections on past mistakes and lingering sorrows, closing with the somber recollection, "We cried on that cold and frosty morn. We cried because our souls were torn. So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years."
In the jump blues styled "Narrow Way" we find Dylan expressing similar sentiments, though in somewhat darker terms. On top of a bouncy rhythm and grinding guitar riff, he glibly declares, "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." Then comes the menacing refrain: "It's a long road. It's a long and narrow way. If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday."
Tempest features strong themes of judgment. Dylan has always been judgmental and even condemning, from his caustic political commentaries in "Masters of War" ("even Jesus would never forgive what you do") and "Neighborhood Bully" to his contemptuous dismissals of lovers in "Idiot Wind" and "Someday Baby." Virtually every Dylan album features at least one scathing track that makes the listener thankful he's not on Dylan's lyrical hit list. On Tempest, he delivers some of his harshest judgments ever, occasionally backed by threats, such as this spine-tingler: "I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you've done. Sooner or later you'll make a mistake. I'll put you in a chain that you never will break—legs and arms and body and bone. I pay in blood, but not my own" ("Pay in Blood").
Just what has Dylan so outraged on Tempest that his anger percolates throughout the album, we can only guess. But his recent Rolling Stone interview might give us a clue. His angry remarks reveal some personal vendettas toward his public accusers over the years, which include the heckler at the Newport Folk Festival who infamously branded him as "Judas" for using an electric guitar to more recent accusations that Dylan has plagiarized by borrowing from Junichi Saga, Henry Timrod, and other writers in his lyrics. Regarding those who have criticized him for these things, Dylan declared that "all those evil motherf--ers can rot in hell."
Like the Rolling Stone interview, Tempest betrays a vengefulness in Dylan. Yet in what is perhaps the album's darkest song, "Tin Angel," he paints a powerful picture of the self-destructive nature of vengeance. It's a dark and brutal ballad about a double murder suicide, culminating in "three lovers together in a heap, thrown into the grave forever to sleep." Reminiscent of Dylan's "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," the tale is so gripping it doesn't matter that the musical backdrop is nearly tuneless. Tony Garnier's loping fretless bass creates a spooky ambience for what might be regarded as the only Dylan song to fall in the horror music category.
After "Tin Angel" comes the title track—a fourteen-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic. Set to an ironically cheerful Celtic waltz, Dylan provides a mostly descriptive account of the carnage, except for an editorial summation near the end: "When the Reaper's task had ended, sixteen hundred had gone to rest—the good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best." He then concludes with a theological comment: "There is no understanding the judgment of God's hand." Dylan has always maintained a strong view of providence, and here we find him willing to do so even to the point of affirming divine purpose in the worst of tragedies.
This is the most striking feature of Tempest—its pervasive message of doom and destruction. Death is a topic that has occupied Dylan from his earliest days of his musical career. In the liner notes of his 1962 debut album, Robert Shelton wrote that Dylan "has, for one so young, a curious preoccupation with songs about death." This preoccupation has waxed and waned throughout the years, but on Tempest it is the dominant theme. In fact, every song on the album references death in some way, and it is the primary subject of the last three songs, which together total more than thirty minutes in length.
Dylan was once called the musical prophet of his generation. Perhaps that remains true, even if today's journalists are not as eager as they used to be to hear his thoughts on various issues (precisely, one would presume, because most of today's journalists are no longer of Dylan's generation). But if one takes that moniker seriously while listening to Tempest, it's hard not to think of the album as an aging prophet's final warning to a crumbing society. The album's title track, after all, gives us the image of an event often considered emblematic of both human hubris and divine wrath. If songs like "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "The Times They are A-Changin'" warned of troubles ahead, then "Tempest" might be a declaration that our ruin is somehow now upon us.
The final song on the album, appropriately enough, is a sort of elegy—a tribute to John Lennon called "Roll On John." It includes several lines lifted directly from Lennon songs as well as the poetry of William Blake, perhaps intended by Dylan as an act in defiance of his recent accusers. Dylan strives to be hopeful, with the refrain, "Shine your light, movin' on. You burned so bright. Roll on John." But in the end, the song fails as a proper elegy because the verses dwell too much on Lennon's death and too little on his life and the light he managed to create with his music. Consequently, "Roll on John" comes off as morose rather than inspirational. Yet for this reason it is nevertheless a fitting closer for Tempest, an album so consumed with death.
Some reviewers have noted that Shakespeare's final play was entitled The Tempest, and have suggested that in choosing the same title (sans the definite article), Dylan might intend this to be his final album. Time will tell about that. But if Tempest does turn out to be Dylan's swan song, he will have ended on a high note, for despite all the gloomy themes, Dylan's creative light is still burning bright.
James S. Spiegel is professor of philosophy at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.