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Album Review: Tempest by Bob Dylan

Four and 1/2 stars out of five

By Greg Allard

Originally published in Insite Magazine on September 14, 2012.

How many comebacks can a legendary artist make before the public finally understands that the legend never really went anywhere, but instead it is the public that has swung like a fickle pendulum, going back and forth between seeing that legend as a perhaps irrelevant relic and a living national treasure?

For the legend that is Bob Dylan, the answer more than just blows in the wind, it thankfully dissipates into the ether.

As elusive as the public’s fancy may be, what should really ultimately matter is that great music, filled with wisdom and soulful expression by musicians who really care,  stands the test of time.

With “Tempest,” Bob Dylan has proved once again that a truly great artist ages like fine wine—and tastes more and more relevant as one’s own taste becomes refined.

In a now famous 2004 60 Minutes interview with the late Ed Bradley, Dylan remarked on writing classics such as “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” :

I don’t know how I got to write those songs, those early songs were                    almost magically written…try to sit down and write something like that,    there’s a magic to it, and it’s a not Siegfried and Roy type of magic. It’s a    different kind of penetrating magic, and I did it at one time.

When Bradley asked if Dylan thought he could still do it today, Dylan shook his head no.

When Bradley then further queried Dylan if that disappointed him, Dylan thoughtfully responded,

“Well, you can’t do something forever. I can do other things now but I can’t do that.”

On the 50th anniversary of his career, “Tempest” is the fifth studio album in a row since 1997’s “Time out of Mind” that shows just how extraordinary “other things” can be, even if you’re 71-years-old and your voice often cracks like an old 78-record or croaks like a wise bullfrog.

The sound is vintage Americana-rockabilly and European-folk music, along with a stylish touch of Tejano influence from the likes of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (guitar, accordion, violin).

His band of Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball (guitars), Tony Garner (bass), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin) and George G. Receli (drums) deserve a ton of credit for melding with Dylan’s observational grumblings and making the record sound like a gem from half a century ago. Dylan himself made sure of that with his self-production under the handle Jack Frost.

The opening track and first video of the album, “Duquesne Whistle,” is a cheerful –sounding train romp with both a country and Pacific Island twang, all played to the words of former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter—marking the only song of the LP where the lyrics are not written by Dylan himself.

The next cut, “Soon After Midnight,” is perhaps the most soothing and romantic of the LP, reminiscent of Love & Theft’s  “Moonlight.” Dylan croons, “It’s soon after midnight and I have a date with the Fairy Queen” and “It’s now or never more than ever, when I meet ya I didn’t think you’d do/ It’s soon after midnight, and I don’t want nobody but you.”

“Narrow Way” the third track on the album, is a bluesy number, replete with fiddle and the soon to be Dylan-catch-phrase “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work your way down to me someday.”

In the fourth song, “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan speaks instead of sings rather humorous lines to a former lover about their broken relationship. “Last night I heard you talkin’ in your sleep saying things you shouldn’t say,” Dylan informs, “Oh baby, you may have to go to jail someday.” He pines for her to come back to him but concedes, “So much for tears—so much for these long and wasted years.”

“Pay in Blood” has a rock edge to it that warns of revenge, “Here me holler, hear me moan, I pay in blood but not my own.”

If you think that’s alarming, “Scarlet Town” is downright scary, starting out on the edge of hell and then delving deeper into it for a closer look.  The banjo, fiddle and vocals reminds one of the atmospheric and mystical “Ain’t Talkin’” from his 2006 album Modern Times.  Dylan mysteriously sings, “Put your heart on a platter and see who’ll bite/ See who will hold you and kiss you goodnight.”

“Early Morning Kings” is a 12-bar blues tongue-in-cheek number about early mobsters. Dylan has tons of fun with lyrical metaphor and innuendo. In it he declares, “I ain’t dead yet—my bell still rings.”

“Tin Angel” is vintage seven-minute-plus 28-verse Dylan as the storyteller, spinning a yarn of a two-timing lover that leads to death and destruction—all to the folksy sound of plucking banjo, snare drum and the double bass. The imagery is sometimes stunning: “He lowered himself down on a golden chain/ His nerves were quaking in every vein/ His knuckles were bloodied, he sucked in the air/ He ran his fingers through his greasy hair.”

Topping even that, the title track “Tempest” is the wondrous tale of the sinking of the Titanic in beautifully metered poetic fashion. The 45 verses, without a chorus, is almost 14 minutes long and worth every second of your attention—again and again and again.

Perhaps the most heartfelt of all tracks is the last song of the LP, “Roll On John,” a tribute to John Lennon that will send shivers down the spine of Lennon fans and make it feel as if his spirit is their in the room with them.
The chorus, “Shine your light. Move it on. You burn so bright—roll on, John” makes one feel that John Lennon has moved onto another body in another universe somewhere to spread his message of love and that somehow, despite the pain, everything is all right.

In “Tempest” you get a little a bit of everything that a 71-year-old Dylan can offer: his dark awareness of mortality, his unique wit, his masterful storytelling, his yearning need for romance, and his deep feelings of philosophy and spirituality—all within a sound that Dylan calls the other things that he can still do. And if you listen with a open-heart, without unfairly comparing him to the deeply penetrating magic of his younger self, your soul is sure to be warmer and richer from the experience.

Bob Dylan – Duquesne Whistle

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