Tempest by Bob Dylan: Is it an unreviewable album?

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Review of Tempest by Bob Dylan
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.

“Narrow Way” is another one of the songs that the LA Times doesn’t like, saying it “rolls like ‘Maggie’s Farm’ with a flat tire.” That’s not a bad line, but one with which I can’t really agree. I’ll admit I’ve been underwhelmed by some of Dylan’s bluesy-rockers of recent years, but “Narrow Way” is to me more like “Tombstone Blues” with a fire lit underneath it.

I’m going to walk across the desert
Till I’m in my right mind
I won’t even think about
What I’ve left behind

Nothing back there anyway
I can call my own
Go back home
Leave me alone

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

Nothing much going on here, I suspect, besides a searing expression of spiritual concepts that are thousands of years old. All framed by a big, wonderfully stupid and irresistible guitar riff.

So, there are clearly big differences between how someone like me hears this album and how someone hears it who only has a lukewarm response. I don’t expect to convince anyone to hear it my way. But maybe our different ways of listening to Dylan’s music have been clarified a little.

What else is there to say at this point? Especially if the album is unreviewable, after all. One thing I want to mention is that—carrying on from the idea of the song “Tempest” as a metaphor for life—all of the talk in the press about the darkness of this album and the “body count” in the songs might tend to miss how relevant the subject matter is to the reality of ordinary human life. We don’t all die in shipwrecks, or by gunshot or stab-wound, but on the other hand plenty of people do die in those and similar ways, and in fact no matter how we die as individuals, the drama of it is inexpressibly enormous, even if it should be in a hospital bed bereft of companions. The very fact of our being alive and then our being dead is dramatic, violent and amazing. That’s one of the things being sung about here, I would suggest, in songs like “Tempest,” “Tin Angel” and even “Roll On John.” The songs are crying out that it all matters. All the passion, all the heartbreak, all the loss and all the possibility of redemption.

The song “Pay In Blood” has been described in reviews as dark and violent, but I have to say on this one that I find it ultimately to be more of a soulful and celebratory kind of groove.

The following verses aren’t all sung consecutively but are some of the lines that have jumped out to me so far:

Night after night,
Day after day,
They strip your useless hopes away
The more I take, the more I give,
The more I die, the more I live

I got something in my pocket
Make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you
Limb from limb

Man can’t live by bread alone
I pay in blood but not my own

The singer isn’t actually singing about vengefully killing people here, surely, but instead about a price that he believes has been paid or will be paid in someone else’s blood, relieving him of the need to try and pay with his own blood.

The part about “man can’t live by bread alone” originates in the Hebrew Bible, of-course; it’s from Deuteronomy, chapter 8:

And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.

We also are familiar with it from the New Testament as a line of Scripture quoted by Jesus to answer one of the temptations of Satan in the desert.

The concept of a price being paid in blood is a very ancient one, common to many cultures, but the New Testament echo is the one that just naturally seems to fit. The Bible —both Testaments—is just to such a large extent the elephant in the room with Dylan. We’re already in that vicinity via an earlier line: “the more I die, the more I live,” which is an echo of Romans, chapter 6 (verses 7-11).

So, although the singer is clearly traveling through dark and dangerous terrain, he has a certain bounce in his step, and an underlying confidence that’s carrying him through: that’s the uplifting feeling I pick up from this song.

And at the age of 71, still touring to packed houses, and with an album that is likely to enter the charts at number one in many locations around the world next week, Dylan seems to have a bounce in his step in more ways than one.

As this is probably the closest thing to a normal review I’m going to do of the album, I’ll give it a rating below.

Rating: Ten out of ten lead pipes.
10 Out Of 10 Lead Pipes
It’s a lead-pipe cinch!