Brewing up a Storm: Bob Dylan’s Tempest
advice serif;”>On the occasion of his 35th studio album, medical cheap serif;”>Ciaran Breslin looks at the implications of Tempest on Dylan’s catalogue, as well as his influence on popular music
Thirty-five studio albums in and Bob Dylan’s latest offering provides the usual mix of enigma, lyrical fodder for Dylan sleuths, and fantastic songs. In terms of musicianship Tempest seamlessly follows the albums of Dylan’s later years; since Time Out of Mind in 1997 Bob’s deteriorating rasp has been palliated by a big, complete blues and country sound, every note beautifully played and produced and Tempest is no different. Fans will be delighted by the freshness and (echoing back to earlier years of Dylan) vitriolic aggression of the record. Perhaps the only thing we can confidently predict about him is that he’s going to be unpredictable. Really, he’s liable to do anything musically and has throughout his career (from pioneering Rock and Roll in 1965, through his gospel period and right up to the bizarre Christmas album of a few years back), although it’s always laced with the same humour, intelligence and a delicacy of language not replicated anywhere in music.
‘Dusquene Whistle’, the lead single of the album, begins with a gentle riff on strings and organ before exploding about 45 seconds in into a tight bouncing waltz, while the main man whales “Listen to that Dusqene whistle blowing!” The melody is infectious and is a reminder of Dylan’s timeless ear for a tune. The video is even better, featuring a kind of crazy tableau that looks like it comes from a slapstick romantic comedy, punctuated by an amiable Dylan strolling around New York with a variety of seedy looking characters. Indeed, while retaining that country-blues sound, Tempest is probably more poppy than Modern Times, boasting plenty of hooks and riffs. Stylistically it really is reminiscent of 60’s Dylan: all extensive mysterious narratives and barbed tongued. The riled voice on ‘Pay In Blood’ sounds every inch the same as that on ‘Positively Fourth Street’ for example. “How I made it back home, nobody knows/Or how I survived so many blows/I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?/You bastard! I’m supposed to respect you?” Dylan sneers, still with the same furious sneer he once directed towards Mr. Jones. The overall effect is a little like Dylan doing young Dylan, perhaps both an acknowledgment of the importance and the influence of the very style he created, and a reminder of his current distance from it.
‘Roll on John’, a beautiful track written about John Lennon, functions in a similar vein, sounding all poignant and reflective, a sage eye cast backwards through the foggy ruins of time, towards this kind of mythical influential figure, until you remember that Dylan predated the Beatles man, used to hang around with him and probably influenced him more than anyone else. This again results in a kind of incidental reference his own influence and longevity: if this is what John Lennon is today, a musical influence of the past to be enshrined and remembered, then what does that make Dylan? Not only is he still around creating music but he’s the one doing the remembering. Really it underlines the unmatched shadow Dylan casts across the musical world.
The album offers plenty of moments of humour and deprecation. ‘Roll On John’ sees Dylan inserting some iconic Lennon lyrics into his own, with the guttural cry of “I heard the news today oh boy/They tore the heart right out and cut him to the core” inspiring amusement more than anything else. The title track however perhaps best sums up the album. At fourteen minutes long, focusing on the dramatic re-imagining of a famous event it’s almost a pastiche of himself. Even the concept sounds like classic Dylan, a fourteen minute epic about the Titanic, and, as the melody kicks in with some knowing irish folky fiddles, you can’t help but think that Dylan was aiming for a collective grin from his audience. Like Alecia Keys’ famous name drop on Modern Times, this time Dylan mentions “Leo’s sketchbook”, delighting and bemusing in equal measure. The full cast of the song, heroic sailors and villainous gamblers, the gentry and the work hands all sprawl through the melodramatic melee of the sinking ship, sounding like a nautical ‘Desolation Row’.
The album is, of course, brilliant. The kind of criticism that Dylan has occasionally encountered in recent years, that he has lost his voice or that he is no longer relevant, completely miss the point. How can he be anything but relevant? It would be like if a new Shakespeare play was suddenly unearthed and everyone dismissed it because it was written so long ago. Like the greatest artists, Dylan transcends zeitgeist and fashion. He remains the most enduring and influential figure in music, the voice of generations, and he’s still not finished speaking.