Bob Dylan,
(Columbia, 2012)

Sitting on the front porch one recent evening, listening with undistracted attention to Bob Dylan's new Tempest, I was unsettled to find myself wondering if this was the greatest album ever made or merely the greatest one I'd heard personally. Either proposition is absurd, clearly, as I recognized as soon as I'd caught myself and forced myself to my senses. Still, it ought to have been warning enough that something disorienting was afoot when the befuddled pre-release reviews of rock critics began to show up. Not a few had no idea what to make of Tempest, and so of course deemed it a failure or maybe (the more charitable) a mixed bag. Even those who praised it -- in fairness, many -- seemed not to understand what it is and how it could have come to be, failing in their fashion to grasp that Dylan's eye and ear see and hear far and piercingly beyond the parade of passing pop-music product.

To us non-rockists who know something of the folk tradition that has served to anchor much of Dylan's work (early on, of course, but even more notably in the past two decades beginning with 1992's Good As I Been to You), it is easy to imagine someone who, on hearing The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in 1963, is then hurled forward into 2012 and sat down in front of Tempest. After shaking off the shock of electric instruments and geezer's raspy growl in place of acoustic guitar and youth's earnest yowl, the listener yet is able to connect the young artist with the old artist. Tempest has nothing to do with the popular music of the early 21st century, thus the confusion of those immersed only in it and immediate antecedents. Most of Tempest's references, lyrical and musical, are to forms and notions decades, at times centuries, in the past, filtered through Dylan's idiosyncratic sensibility and cranky cultural conservatism.

If you are unversed in, for example, sanguinary traditional epics such as -- specifically -- "Gypsy Davy," "Henry Lee," "Matty Groves" and "Awake You Drowsy Sleeper," you probably lack any option to flailing wildly and convincing yourself, as one prominent reviewer did, that "Tin Angel" is a Tom Waits pastiche. In reality, Dylan's ballad, as shockingly anti-romantic as its sources (all recount murders of lovers or spouses), filches plot elements -- and sometimes direct quotes, as in the opening line "Late last night when the boss came home" -- from these arcane yarns of lust, jealousy and retribution. The title itself owes to a more contemporary source, a 1960s Joni Mitchell song with the sappy refrain "She found someone to love today." Dylan turns that quest on its head, while exacting ironic vengeance upon the insufferable Mitchell for calling him out as a "plagiarist" a few years ago.

Dylan is a plagiarist in the way of folk singers who soak up melodies and lyrics, alter them, take them out of original context, place them in new ones and generally have their way with them. Even rockists have come to discern as much, however foggily, though just a few years ago it was still possible to read a review in which one actually believed Dylan had written the couplet "When I was in Missouri / They would not let me be" (on "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" from 1997's Time Out of Mind; the words are courtesy of Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis's 1928 recording "I Will Turn Your Money Green"). Dylan's borrowing has not been exclusively of old blues and ballad lines, phrases and images, but that's been the bulk of it. Folk musicians, from the rural ones to their revival acolytes, have always valued recycling.

The sprightly, Western-swinging "Duquesne Whistle," which opens Tempest, rises up from the lyrical template of the Memphis Jug Band's "KC Moan" (1929). "Long and Wasted Years" name-checks two blues classics, "Come Back, Baby" and "Two Trains Running" (and quotes the Isley Brothers' "Twist & Shout" and "Talking in Your Sleep," by Gordon Lightfoot, whom Dylan has sometimes cited as among his favorite songwriters). "Scarlet Town" is located in -- obviously -- "Barbara Allen" country; Gillian Welch used the same title and locale for a song on last year's The Harrow & The Harvest. Well, it goes on, never more so than on the 14-minute title piece, Dylan's contribution to the American Folk Songbook, Titanic section, already housing many dozens of ballads on that doomed vessel. More on that shortly.

Clocking in at more than an hour, Tempest feels at once bright and dark. The production, by Dylan himself in his Jack Frost persona, glistens, and the band -- which is mostly his longtime touring band plus David Hidalgo -- performs magnificently, always there in precisely the right way and adroitly avoiding the toes of others. Simply as a sonic phenomenon, the album exudes warmth or, if not exactly that, demands rapt attention in the darker moments when mayhem is threatened or bodies are counted. Including Titanic victims, more than 1,600 souls shed their blood on the tracks of Tempest, which traffics luridly in the extremes of experience, yet even so mostly recognizable experience. In other words, you and I are here, too.

You can't say Dylan sings great in any conventional sense, but his vocals here are extraordinarily effective, sometimes endearingly playful. You have to listen to the way that he as hapless narrator delivers the verse "A gal named Honey / Took my money / [slight pause] She was passing by" ("Soon After Midnight") to soak in all of the humor, though even in print some of that emerges. But it's the faint hesitation at the end of the second line that makes the simple, hopeless explanation hilarious in the manner of goofy Bob-funny.

Dylan has said that as the idea for an album began to form in his head, he thought of writing a set of religiously themed material. Tempest ended up as something else. Still, echoes sound, for example in the unexpectedly moving "Narrow Way," among the strongest cuts on an album on which weak ones are pretty scarce on the ground. The inspiration is Matthew 7:14 ("small is the gate and narrow the road"), setting up the refrain "If I can't work up to you / You'll surely have to work down to me someday" -- the "you" here is not hard to identify -- that grows in intensity and power with each recitation. (The words are not original; they belong to the Mississippi Sheiks' 1934 recording "You'll Work Down to Me Someday.") "Narrow Way," which works the same simple Charlie Patton-esque blues riff employed in "Dirt Road Blues" (Time Out of Mind), isn't solely a hymn and a prayer. It's also about love and sex, and it urges, unsentimentally, kindness to others and ourselves. I have never heard a sacred song like it. Nobody but Dylan could have written it.

In April 1952 a revised Carter Family line-up -- no longer the trio of A.P., wife Sara and Sara's cousin Maybelle, but now A.P., ex-wife Sara and their children Janette and Joe -- convened to record songs in the traditional Carter style. One was "The Titanic." which I have known and treasured nearly all of my life. It's strange, sad and mysterious, set to an intriguing, emotionally loaded melody. The first verse goes, "The pale moon rose in its glory / Drifting from golden west / She told a sad, sad story / Six hundred [sic] had gone to rest." Befitting the folk process, the words have no claim to originality. The first and third lines, for instance, can be heard, among other places, in a turn-of-the-last-century Alberta ballad about a sleeping cowboy devoured by ravenous coyotes.

As Dylan slightly recreates the introduction, "Tempest's" saga opens, "The pale moon rose in its glory / Out on the western town / She told a sad, sad story / Of the great ship that went down." That last line nods to the most sung of all Titanic ballads, "It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down." In the verses that follow, Dylan occasionally resurrects or parodies Carter lyrics while expanding the story of the sinking in all its drama and terror, even picking up scenes and characters from James Cameron's jejune 1997 film The Titanic, as if to acknowledge that even the cheesiest popular art is part of the evolving legend. This is, of course, sailing atop the Carter melody, which rockist reviewers oblivious to Dylan's source insist on characterizing as a "Celtic country waltz" (and sometimes, idiotically, as "tedious" as well). From the original, Dylan returns to the enigmatic figure of the sleeping watchman "who dreamed the Titanic was sinking," perhaps a stand-in for an indifferent universe to which all events, glorious or tragic, pass as if no more than ephemeral visions.

Alongside the brilliant writing -- it hardly needs noting that Dylan is a master of ballad craft -- he and the band, reeling in a rolling neo-oldtime string-band arrangement, build tension and entrance the listener. Though the ending is never in doubt, the telling evokes a dizzying array of human actions and emotions, lamenting at last that "there is no understanding of the judgment of God's hand." By the time the conclusion has arrived, the listener feels as if taken into another world larger than this one. Along with another anthem of the apocalypse, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" on Freewheelin' so long ago, this is surely the most powerfully executed extended narrative Dylan has ever composed. And no, one rockist writer notwithstanding, it is not inferior to "Desolation Row" (Highway 61 Revisited, 1965). Has anyone listened to "Desolation Row" recently?

Tempest closes with the hypnotic "Roll On, John," a stately folk ballad whose title is associated with a traditional song Dylan sang in his early career without ever recording officially. (You can hear it on John Cohen's 2001 Smithsonian Folkways collection There is No Eye.) This one is dedicated to his friend John Lennon, not a matter of interpretation because Dylan cites titles of Beatles songs throughout. Not everything is entirely out there, though. Cryptic images of a slave ship abroad on dark waters steal in and out of the narrative -- representing, perhaps, the inexorable passage of time and the cruel persistence of grief. There are lines -- surely for the first time ever in the same neighborhood -- from the disparate likes of Tennessee bluesman Sleepy John Estes and English poet William Blake. The melody is gorgeous and memorable. The sentiments are as sincere as a bleeding wound. As Tempest's last notes fade, the listener struggles to return to normal life and consciousness.

Obviously, no such thing as the greatest record ever made exists, could exist or should exist. This is, all the same, Dylan's finest hour, and Tempest is the grandest Dylan album of them all. I'm thrilled that Dylan has lived long enough to make it, and I rejoice that I have stuck around long enough to hear it.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 October 2012

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