James S. Spiegel
The Light's Still Burning
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.