Bob Dylan’s fantastic new album opens with a train song. Given the wrath to come and the often elemental ire that accompanies it, not to mention all the bloodshed, madness, death, chaos and assorted disasters that will shortly be forthcoming, you may be surprised that what’s clattering along the tracks here isn’t the ominous engine of a slow train coming, a locomotive of doom and retribution, souls wailing in a caboose crowded with the forlorn damned and other people like them.
“Dusquesne Whistle”, instead, and at odds it will shortly transpire with much we go on to encounter, joyfully evokes the jubilee train of gospel legend, bound for glory; a salvation express full of hopeful hallelujahs, its destination somewhere better than here, this sickly place and its trampled sadness, unceasing strife and grief everywhere you look. In ways some distance removed from the things waiting on the rest of the album, “Dusquesne Whistle” is passably carefree, possibly even best described as rambunctious.
It begins fabulously, with a jazzy instrumental preface, reminiscent of “Nashville Skyline Rag”, guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimble briskly exchanging Charlie Christian licks. It’s like turning on the radio and tuning into the past, nostalgically evocative of a more sunlit innocent time. There is too the impression that we have joined the album, somehow, after it’s already started and eerily like this music has been playing forever on a disc that never stops spinning. Then the whole group blows in, the magnificent road band that’s backed Dylan, most of them anyway, on everything he’s recorded since ‘Love And Theft’, and so includes Modern Times, Together Through Life and Christmas In The Heart.
They are ablaze here and on fire throughout, and at their jitterbugging point of entry, “Dusquesne [phonetically, Doo-Kayne] Whistle” takes on an unstoppable momentum that may remind you of, say, “Highway 61 Revisited” or “Tombstone Blues” (I was also fleetingly reminded of Cat Power’s swinging version of “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” from the I’m Not There soundtrack). Even as the song is apparently celebrating what’s good in the world, something more awry is stirring, clouds gathering. “Can’t you here that Dusquesne Whistle blowin’, blowin’ like the sky’s gonna blow apart,” Dylan sings in intimation of shadows about to fall paradise. In other words, Tempest is not dark yet, but will be soon enough.
When Dylan convened with his band at Jackson Browne’s Groove Masters studios in Santa Monica, he’s said it was his intention to make a ‘religious’ album, though he wasn’t specific about quite what he meant by this and whether there was any connection between the record he had in mind and his so-called Born Again albums, that trio of discs including Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love that 30 years ago shocked and confounded his audience, when they were also alarmed by the vengeful sermonising that punctuated his concerts of the time. There are inklings, though, of the album Dylan originally envisioned on, for instance, “Dusquenes Whistle”, where a voice the singer hears “must be the mother of our Lord”, and even more apparently on the devotionally-inclined “Long And Wasted Years” and the gospel-influenced “Pay In Blood”, which follows. The testing of belief in extreme circumstances is a recurring theme.
“Long And Wasted Years” finds Dylan almost talking his way through the song, in the manner of “Three Angels” from New Morning, over a slightly churchy organ and a lovely bluesy guitar refrain. “I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned,” Dylan recites at one point, the charred landscape that so much of Tempest occupies coming fully into focus, a forlorn sort of place, populated by the displaced and the lost, to who Dylan gives poignant voice. “I ain’t seen my family in 20 years,” he reflects wearily in one of the verses. “They may be dead by now/I lost track of them after they lost their land.” The bereft hopelessness that is evident in many instances on the album is especially well articulated here, especially in the song’s chastening final image: “We cried on a cold and frosty morn,” Dylan mourns, and there’s no other word for it. “We cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years”.
“Pay In Blood” opens with guitars, piano and a little Tex-Mex swagger over a vaguely menacing chord sequence reminiscent of one of those great declamatory Warren Zevon songs that Dylan so admires, like “Lawyers, Guns And Money”, “Boom Boom Mancini” (which Dylan covered in concert several times as a tribute when Zevon died in 2003). There’s a hint, too, in the arrangement, of the song’s gospel roots, and something of the Stones in Charlie Sexton’s admirable guitar riff. It’s a song in part about the futile notion of suffering being in any way ennobling. “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?” Dylan asks, a bitter question, asked perhaps of God, since he then adds: “You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you? I’ll give you justice. . .” The singer’s anger is anger palpably rising, and he is prone to reject communal solace for a life apart, lonely and slightly terrified. “This is how I spend my days/I take my fear and sleep alone,” Dylan sings, following it with the chilling pay-off line, several times repeated: “I pay in blood, but not my own.”
“Soon After Midnight”, meanwhile, sounds at first like a touching, funny country love song, gently crooned, with the languid melodic lope of “Mississippi”. It gives way suddenly, however, to a similar distress – “My heart is fearful/It’s never cheerful/I’ve been down on the killing floor” – and an incrementally vengeful mood that surfaces several times elsewhere, with even greater malevolence. “Narrow Way”, for instance, is seven minutes of wrath, driven by the kind of scalding guitar circulations that propelled “Dirt Road Blues” on Time Out Of Mind and Modern Times’ “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”, both of which also were indebted to Muddy Waters. “This is a hard country to stay alive in,” Dylan sings, in condemnation of the people who have made it thus, adding in warning: “I’m armed to the hilt.”
“Early Roman Kings” is equally livid, an accusatory tirade, again directed at the same people Dylan has pretty much railed against since he first put plectrum to guitar string and started having his say about things. The “kings” of the song’s title are vividly seen “in their sharkskin suits, bow-ties and buttons and high-top boots” as shyster bankers, corrupt money-men who have bankrupted nations, impoverished millions. As Dylan puts it, “The meddlers and the peddlers, they buy and they sell/they destroyed your city, they’ll destroy you as well.” What Dylan feels about them is akin to the savage hate expressed on “Masters Of War”, say. “I could strip you of life, strip you of breath/Ship you down to the house of death,” he sings with hostile contempt, nothing particularly equivocal about this point of view, which is in a word merciless.
“Early Roman Kings” is the closest thing here to the kind of roadhouse blues that has been a signature of a lot of recent Dylan , especially Together Through Life. David Hidalgo from Los Lobos adds typically gutsy accordion to the band’s robust vamping and the track’s lurching gait is an absolute gas, its vicious sentiment notwithstanding. The blues continues to be a vital part of Dylan’s music, but Tempest on key songs also marks a return to a folk tradition that has latterly not been as much in evidence. “Scarlet Town” is notably set to a melody that sounds like it’s been passed down the ages and has a courtly mien reminiscent of the Gillian Welch song from last year’s The Harrow & The Harvest with which it shares a title. Fiddle and banjo take the lead here, creating a mysterious swirling atmosphere. There are flashes of bawdy humour, too; but the pervasive mood, here as elsewhere, is ultimately of turmoil and unrest. Towards the end of its seven minute running time, the track is further interrupted by a wraith-like guitar solo that rises out of the mix like something emerging from a fog and adds a particular creepiness to things.
“Tin Angel” sounds similarly as if it could have been lifted wholesale from an anthology of traditional folk songs, where hundreds of such tales must lurk. It’s a revenge ballad, nine minutes long, with no chorus, banjo and fiddle again to the fore. The setting is vague. References in one of the later verses to a helmet and cross-handed sword suggest a chivalric age. But soon after that, there’s a gunfight, the kind of point-blank shoot-out set-piece you used to find in Walter Hill movies, which suggests Dylan at one point may have had a Western setting in mind, perhaps inspired by a recent tour bus viewing of something like Duel In The Sun, a torrid oater starring Dylan favourite Gregory Peck.
What happens, anyway, is that someone called The Boss, which is not a name you probably come across too often n the Child Ballads, one day comes home from wherever to find his wife has gone missing. Whither the missus? Has she simply left him, or been abducted? Boss upon investigation is tipped off by a faithful retainer that the errant spouse has in fact made off with one Henry Lee, leader of an unidentified clan. Boss orders his men to horse and off they gallop in hot pursuit, his men deserting him along the way. Dogged Boss continues alone. After presumably much travail, Boss tracks down Henry Lee and his wife, bursts in on their amorous coupling and after declaring his love for his wife starts blasting away. Henry Lee’s the better shot and soon Boss is dying in his own blood. The missus takes this surprisingly badly and stabs Henry Lee before plunging a dagger into her own heart. The final image of the three of them tossed into a single grave “forever to sleep” is chillingly unforgettable.
And so to the title track: 45 verses over 14 minutes about the sinking of The Titanic, inspired by Dylan’s musings on The Carter Family’s “The Titanic”, but at times as much in debt to James Cameron’s blockbuster movie (whose leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio is name-checked twice). The piece starts with what sounds like a string quartet, after which brief overture the song settles into a long unwinding waltz, progressing with stately resolution, verse following verse, like a latter day “Desolation Row”. The song vividly describes the panic and confusion as the great ship flounders, a metaphor for the folly of over-reaching ambition; mankind again brought low by God’s intervention.
The scale of the disaster is enormous, contains “every kind of sorrow”, Dylan dramatically capturing the dark panic of the moment – the blown hatches, the water poring everywhere, the ship’s smokestack crashing down, humbler passengers trapped below decks – and as in the film, certain characters are given their own scenes, each verse then a gripping vignette. There’s for instance someone called Wellington, holed up in his cabin: “Glass and shattered crystal lay scattered round about/He strapped on both his pistols/How long could he hold out?” And here’s Jim Backer: “He saw the starlight shining/Streaming from the east/ Death was on the rampage, but his heart was now at peace.” “Davy the Brothel-Keeper,” meanwhile, “came out, dismissed his girls/saw the water getting deeper, saw the changing of his world.” The ship’s captain at the moment of its sinking catches his reflection in the glass of a compass and “in the dark illumination, he remembered bygone years/He read the Book of Revelation, filled his cup with tears”.
After such calamity, the sheer tenderness of the closing “Roll On, John” is as much of a shock as a mere surprise. A belated tribute to John Lennon, the song’s as direct and heartfelt as anything Dylan’s written probably since “Sara”, whose occasional gaucheness it recalls, as Dylan roams over Lennon’s career, “from the Liverpool docks to the red-light Hamburg streets”, quoting from Lennon and Beatles’ songs along the way, including “A Day In The Life”, “The Ballad Of John And Yoko” and “Come Together”. The affection expressed for Lennon in the song is tangible, makes it glow like a force-field, and by the end is totally disarming. “Your bones are weary, you’re about to breathe your last,” Dylan sings to his dead friend. “Lord you know how hard that bit can be,” before moving onto a spine-tingling elegiac chorus: “Shine a light/Move it on/You burned so bright/Roll on, John”.
We must address, I suppose, in closing, the similarity of this album’s title to Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, and the idea that follows that this record is likewise some farewell, a summation of sorts, a final rallying of waning creative energies, perhaps the last act in Dylan’s storied career. The idea of Bob as a kind of riverboat Propsero is hugely appealing, and he remains, supremely, a story-telling sorcerer, but Dylan has already dismissed the comparison as simply wrong-headed and therefore pointless. And for all its evident preoccupation with death and the end of things, Tempest is in many respects the most far-reaching, provocative and transfixing album of Dylan’s later career. Nothing about it suggests a swansong, adios or fond adieu.
“I ain’t dead yet, my bell still rings,” he sings on “Early Roman Kings”, and how loud and bright and strong that clarion toll yet sounds.