They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgement of God’s hand
So goes one of the final verses of Bob Dylan’s song, “Tempest,” released this past September 11th. It describes the sinking of the Titanic, but makes no mention of any iceberg. There is only the “tempest” cited in the title. It’s an unusually long song, and Hurricane Sandy is predicted to be one unusually long storm. Make of it what you will!
At this hour (10 a.m.) from my vantage point in the center of New York City, things are quite calm and very strange. Breezy, for sure, with some raindrops in the air but no torrents. What is very odd is knowing that, effectively, everyone is at home. You can almost never say that in New York, on any day, at any hour. This strange state of affairs is thanks to the complete shut down of public transportation. It is only the second time that’s ever been done in anticipation of inclement weather, the first time being August of 2011, when it was done for Hurricane Irene. That turned out to be an overreaction. This time, if the meteorologists are half-way correct, it will not be an overreaction.
In New York City, amidst the walls of skyscrapers, I think most of us tend to feel immune to the vagaries of weather. The worst blizzards imaginable can strike, but in a few hours as if by magic the streets are cleared and the sidewalks swept. If you use the subway or your legs to get around, you are barely inconvenienced by such events.
This could be different—indeed it’s already different by virtue of the subway shutdown—but still I think the deepest concern with regard to this storm is for people in other locales, places where they are almost certain to lose power, perhaps for many days. With the power lines underground in Manhattan, I’m not sure what disastrous sequence of events would have to take place to cut off power here.
In any case, I will continue checking in here as whim and circumstance dictate.
Now I’m going to take the dog for a walk.
One more verse from “Tempest” by Bob Dylan:
Smokestack was leaning sideways
Heavy feet began to pound
He walked into the whirlwind
Sky splitting all around
Addendum 11 a.m.: In truth, a quick walk around the neighborhood shows that about 50% of businesses are open, and there are plenty of people out and about, searching for the storm. I guess eventually it will probably find us.
There are many lovely versions of the great old song, “Drifting Too Far from the Shore,” written by one Charles E. Moody. There’s Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Emmylou Harris, for starters. In the documentary “No Direction Home,” Bob Dylan credits his first hearing of this song, as a child, with igniting a kind of mystical experience for him. When he heard it (it was a record left sitting on a record player in the house his family had moved into) he says he felt like he “was somebody else.” (You might even say he was kind of transfigured.)
I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest (the iTunes version until my LPs arrive) over the past week and I’ve also been looking at some of the reviews. My impression at the moment is of a vast gulf between what the album contains versus what even the best reviewers have been able to say about it. I don’t think this is because the reviewers are stupid but rather that there really is so much going on in the songs on this album that a review of standard length and breadth is bound to come up short; this is true I think even more than to the usual degree. I mean, it’s always essentially impossible to write adequately about music, when only listening to it will communicate its nature, but Tempest is a special case, even when compared to many other Bob Dylan albums. I think we’re used to a Bob Dylan album having one or two or even three of the kinds of songs that blow one’s mind and take over one’s imagination. But Tempest, with ten songs, has I think at least eight that reach that level (though I’m not even going to say which two don’t).
On one level perhaps it’s just a question of fecundity. The album is highly populated with long songs, and even the songs that aren’t dramatically long contain lots and lots of words. Dylan’s never been one to record many instrumentals, but I think it’s been a long time since the lyrics have spilled out of him with this kind of volume and force. And not chaotically either: the lyrics are intricate and filled with terrific rhymes, and burst forth in his torn-up voice yet highly nuanced singing with confidence and purpose.
Now, I fully understand why all the people invited to those “listening sessions” earlier in the year were so wowed. An appreciative listener arrives at the end of this album somewhat breathless and slack-jawed in amazement (and not just on the first spin either).
Of-course, all of the above makes me sound like someone who worships everything Dylan does completely uncritically, but I’m long past apologizing for my affection and regard for Bob Dylan’s body of work. Check back in three hundred years and we’ll find out whether those who thought Dylan was very special have been vindicated or whether those who thought he was merely another purveyor of late-20th-century-type rock/pop songs were proven right.
It’s true that not everyone has been bowled over by Tempest. That’s fair enough—no one’s obliged to like it at all—but merely as a student of human nature I’m curious as to why some people who like what we can loosely call “this kind of music” and who attest to loving much of what Bob Dylan has done before would not be nearly as wildly-enamored of this album as others.
The review in the LA Times was not technically a bad review (3 stars), but included substantial caveats. Perhaps reflecting on some of the reservations can be illustrative of where the differences in perception lie.
The reviewer appears to be least-impressed by the title track, which is a fourteen-minute song based around the sinking of the Titanic.
[Bob Dylan] is officially an antique, a relic and the last of his kind in a world that has little time or patience to focus on a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic when everybody already knows how it ends. This is the big, grand miscue on the record. In an Irish-tinged tune that repeats virtually the same 16-bar melody throughout its quarter-hour, Dylan in poetic verse recounts the sinking and the fate of its passengers with a singsong phrasing that grows tiresome.
Well, if “everybody already knows how it ends,” what is the point, indeed?
It’s not beyond the capacity of Bob Dylan to write and record a dull or monotonous track, but I admit it does beggar my own empathetic capacity to understand how someone who generally enjoys Dylan’s music could find this to be such a track. It requires some kind of imperviousness. The folky melody is certainly repetitive, but if you want symphonies, you’re in the wrong place, my friend. For me, the counterpoint of the lilting waltz with the subject matter of the song amounts to something very affecting. And Bob’s singing throughout is so filled with variations in tone and character that monotony is for me very far from the situation. Dylan is really proving on this album how someone with a voice that is so shot can nonetheless be a a singer of great expression and subtlety (at least in the studio).
Ah, but we know how the story ends! Well, to think that this song is intended to inform us of how the story of the Titanic ends strikes me as maybe a slight failure of imagination, or attentiveness, or both. The title of the song, “Tempest,” is the initial tip-off that we are not in literal-ville. The historical Titanic was not sunk in a storm, after all, but by an iceberg (of which there is not a single mention in the forty-five[?] verses). So one might begin to suspect there could be something metaphorical going on. How about the story of the Titanic as a metaphor for life and death—for all of our lives and deaths? In any case, for this longstanding fan of Dylan’s work, it is pretty darned difficult not to be galvanized by the driving parade of verses, some of which include:
The passageway was narrow
There was blackness in the air
He saw every kind of sorrow
Heard voices everywhere
The veil was torn asunder
Between the hours of twelve and one
No change no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done
The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside
They battened down the hatches
But the hatches wouldn’t hold
They drowned upon the staircase
Of brass and polished gold
The watchman he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone
Ah, shucks, if only we didn’t know how it all ends! Oddly enough, despite knowing it all, I find myself coming to the end of this song only wide-eyed and dazed.
Literal-ville doesn’t seem to me like it would be the most interesting place to live, especially if all you’ve got to listen to are Bob Dylan songs. The same LA Times reviewer says he likes the song “Long and Wasted Years,” but sums it up blandly as “a bitter song about a dead marriage.” Oh! I hadn’t realized that’s all it was. Foolishly, I’d felt all kinds of deep vibrations and resonances in this song. But somehow, there must be a way to bang all those verses into shape as just another bitter song about a dead marriage.
My enemy crashed into the dust
Stopped dead in his tracks and he lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart
He died in shame, he had an iron heart
We cried on a cold and frosty morn
We cried because our souls were torn
So much for tears
So much for these long and wasted years
Hmm. If I didn’t know it was only a bitter song about a dead marriage, I’d say the track fairly explodes with emotional echoes and reflections on things like love, loyalty, memory, forgiveness, and regret. In addition, in terms of the sound and vocal performance, it evokes Dylan’s great song from 1986, “Brownsville Girl,” suggesting however vaguely some kind of picking-up of that story many years later. I admit that the track downright makes my eyes well up from the very first verse onwards. Maybe I’ll be able to correct that by keeping in mind the words “bitter” and “dead” from now on (but I wouldn’t count on it).
The same reviewer helpfully points out that the song “Early Roman Kings” is “a blues that directs its wrath at the selfish rich in the same way that ‘Masters of War’ indicted the military-industrial complex in 1963.” Alright. Without reopening stale discussions of “Masters of War,” is slamming the selfish rich—like some “Occupy Wall Street” slogan—really what “Early Roman Kings” is all about?
I can dress up your wounds
With a blood-clotted rag
I ain’t afraid to make love
To a bitch or a hag
If you see me comin’
And you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief
In the air
I ain’t dead yet
My bell still rings
I keep my fingers crossed
Like them early Roman kings
The LA Times reviewer appears to be way more savvy than yours truly, when it comes to hammering the latest Bob Dylan songs into some pre-ordained mold of meaning. For me, up until this point, I was just digging the attitude on this track. I hadn’t picked up on any political or social manifesto. I’ll keep trying, though. Continue reading Tempest by Bob Dylan: Is it an unreviewable album?→
With the official release of Tempest by Bob Dylan coming in seven days, the full-length reviews are beginning to appear in the press. People appear to like it a lot. I can’t be sure, but I’m beginning to suspect that this might be the break-out album for Bob Dylan—the one that makes him a household name.
On the other hand, maybe not. If it flops, I guess he’ll have to just go back to writing songs for Adele and Tom Jones.
Joking aside, just as with the “preview” reviews, one can very quickly read too much of the “real” reviews, and so I’ve really only been glancing. Like most mortals, I’m looking forward to hearing the record(s) completely myself, and I suppose I’ll get round to writing something about it here afterwards.
The promotion for it has been quite something. From the “listening locations” where even now one can hear tracks streamed to one’s “device,” to the “pop-up stores” where one will be able to go on the evening before the release to buy it early … and all of this began with those “listening sessions” for select members of the intelligentsia, who were all blown away. In total it amounts to a perfect storm. Put another way, an ideal tempest.
It’s amazing to contemplate. If you’d told someone back in 1970 that forty-two years hence the release of a new Bob Dylan album would be such a huge occasion, they’d have thought you were smoking something rare and potent indeed. After Self Portrait? How much could the guy possibly have left in him? Even New Morning seemed no more than a half-way return-to-form to most people. No one could have conceived that in the year 2012 Bob Dylan would actually be one of the the surest bets in the world of popular music. Because as strange as it sounds, that’s what he is today. But the thing to celebrate is that he’s done it on his own terms. He’s being who he is. People just happen to like it. Continue reading Tempest approaching for Bob Dylan fans, and a still-curious world→
More music journalists are coming out of the closet with their reactions after having had a “listening session” with Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, Tempest. Michael Simmons in Mojo says bluntly that the album is “astonishing.” Anne Margaret Daniel in Ireland’s Hot Press uses words like “breathtaking, mythmaking, heartbreaking” and even “perfect.” It seems they like it. Neil McCormick in The Telegraph has similarly waxed rhapsodic. Continue reading The buzz goes on for Bob Dylan’s Tempest→
I assume that what has been published is an excerpt of a longer interview that will be published later, but I don’t know that for a fact.
Dylan describes his own record as one where “anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense.” He also says:
I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn’t have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread – than it does with a record like I ended up with.
That’s interesting, and also interesting is how he distinguishes “intentionally, specifically religious” songs from others that are presumably not so intentional and specific but still religious. I think we understand what he means.
The article includes some characterizations of certain songs offered by Mikal Gilmore, and some talk about the title track, which is the one long-rumored about the Titanic. Amusingly, Dylan finds a place within the fourteen-minute epic to mention Leonardo DiCaprio. He’s quoted: “Yeah, Leo. I don’t think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.” Continue reading Bob Dylan in Rolling Stone on Tempest→
It’s a kind of marketing with which we’re becoming familiar from the Bob Dylan “camp”: rumors of a new album being recorded, followed weeks or months later by an official announcement, and then the granting of a “listening session” to certain select music journalists, with the proviso, mind you, that no notes be taken.
It’s been a highly effective way of creating a buzz (and Dylan has had two albums which entered various charts around the world at number one in the past decade). However, lest we dismiss it too cynically as a hyping mechanism, we should at least bear in mind that were one of these people at a listening session to come away saying how incredibly dull the record was (“I almost fell asleep! I just wanted to escape!”) then that would not do much for the sales prospects. You can avoid that to some degree by picking people whom you expect will enjoy the music, but there’s no guarantees.
As far as I know, only one writer who’s heard the forthcoming album has said anything about it to date, and that’s Allan Jones of the UK’s Uncut magazine. He did not fall asleep, it seems. After four or five tracks, he says, he was only thinking “how much better is this thing going to get?” Now that’s the kind of buzz you really like to have.
In terms of concrete characterizations, Jones really only says that the album has less of the “roadhouse blues” or “jazzy riverboat shuffles” that has populated the last three Dylan albums, but he alludes instead to songs like “Red River Shore” or “’Cross the Green Mountain” in terms of what the new record feels like. Those are great songs; in fact they are unforgettable classics of Dylan’s latter-day career. Again, high marks for buzz, although I do presume that Allan Jones is merely giving his honest impression rather than trying to hype anything. Continue reading World anticipates a Tempest (and also a new Bob Dylan album)→
As expounded upon before, I’m not an advocate of vinyl purely for its tactile pleasures (although I love holding a real record as much as the next guy), but for quite a few years now there’s been a trend whereby new music released on vinyl has received a kinder and more faithful mastering than that which is released on CD (or mp3), where the abuse of the process of dynamic range compression has resulted in blaring and ultimately-wearying recordings being foisted upon a largely unsuspecting public. (Also known as the Loudness War[s].) The Dylan CD releases of the past several years seem to have progressively improved in that respect. Together Through Life on CD didn’t sound quite as bad as Modern Times had, and Christmas in the Heart seemed (to me at least) better still. (By the way, with the mercury frequently hitting triple digits in many parts this summer, I am glad to suggest that putting on Christmas in the Heart makes for some pretty effective aural air-conditioning. There’s nothing like listening to Bob Dylan sing “Winter Wonderland” when it’s 104 degrees in July. Just try not to get so enchanted that you light up some logs in the fireplace.)
I don’t know how the mastering will go on the forthcoming release, but Sony/Columbia is continuing the recent pattern of offering a vinyl package that also includes the album on CD. This is a smart way of selling it, I guess, albeit that one might wish for a lower price-tag.
Amazon.com is offering Tempest for pre-order as two vinyl LPs with one CDfor (at the time of writing) $25.99. Through the BobDylan.com site, on the other hand, you can pre-order the same thing for four dollars more.
That deliciously brings to mind Bob’s couplet from his song “Po’ Boy”:
I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store
The man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”
Of-course, may the Good Lord hasten the way when all honest consumers will be able to obtain the recording as it was meant to be heard regardless of the medium in which they purchase it. Does that seem so much to ask?