Whenever a great Dylan album appears, people reflexively say that’s it’s his best since Blood on the Tracks. The time has come to raise the bar. Tempest, Dylan’s 34th studio album, is his best album since Highway 61 Revisited.
“Roll on John,” Tempest’s finale, is a prayer/ tribute for John Lennon, and it’s the most poignant studio performance of Dylan’s career. The vocals are naked and raw, emotions pour from the soul of the singer, and emotions will pour from his audience. The arrangement captures the essence of Lennon’s sound during his post Beatles career. “Roll On John” has the anguish of “Mother,” the warmth of “Beautiful Boy,” and it’s unlike any of the other nine tracks on this sacred addition to Dylan’s oeuvre.
Tempest begins with a soft, ragtime riff before the “Duquesne Whistle” blows. The band stampedes forward as Dylan’s bawdy growls set an optimistic tone, to what turns out to be one of his darkest records yet. Tony Garnier’s cardiac bass thumps are the perfect companion for Dylan’s rumbling voice. If this infectious tune enters your head, you’ll find yourself whistling both day and night. Dylan recorded Tempest with his steadfast touring band–a prudent decision. The band nails every song, there’s not a weak or awkward moment to be heard. It’s as if every Dylan albums and concerts since Oh Mercy (1989) were part of a master plan slowly leading towards Tempest.
The tales here are epic and the characters are desperate, treacherous, and sometimes heroic. The title track is an exhilarating 14 minute narrative about the Titanic. Fittingly, the performance comes off like a jaunty sea shanty. Dylan croons with the bravado of an ancient Irish storyteller who only pauses long enough to swig off his pint. With 45 verses and no chorus, covering “Tempest” will make covering “Hurricane” and “Desolation Row” seem like child’s play.
Never before have I ever been so engaged with every song on an album during my first listen. Intensity burns in every verse, and Dylan’s got the blood of the land in his voice. On “Tin Anglel,” Garnier’s ominous bass forewarns bad news, and he repeats that motif for nine minutes as Dylan delivers a savage tale of a triple murder/ suicide. This is the coldest song I’ve ever heard.
With a majestic blend of banjo, mandolin and violin, the band strikes a hypnotic groove during “Scarlet Town.” Dylan’s singing is up front in the mix, and it matches up perfectly with the mystical melody. He may not have a lot of range, but Dylan exercises incredible power and control of his voice. “Scralet Town” is filled with longing, regret and heartache, it’s a tune that you just can’t shake.
In Scarlet Town the end is near/ The seminal wonders of the world are here/ The evil and the good/ living side by side/ All human thoughts seem glorified/ Put your heart on a platter/ and see who’ll bite/ See who will hold you/ and kiss you goodnight
The album flows magnificently. “Pay in Blood” rocks like something from Infidels, or something Dylan could have conjured up with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Dylan’s scowling is as persistent as it is thrilling. Sometimes Dylan sounds like the wise and witty seventy-one year-old sage, and sometimes he just wants to burn this house down like as he does on the third cut, “Long and Narrow Way.” The groove pulsates with devilish intent and Dylan warns, “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me some day.” If you like to dance, shuffle, and move, “Long and Narrow Way” is irresistible.
Tempest’s second song, “Soon After Midnight,” sets a tender and sentimental tone, although its startlingly tough in spirit. Dylan sings, “It’s now or never, now more than ever.” Dylan lives by that motto, and he has no intentions of retreating or fading away anytime soon. “Wasted Years” resembles a mid-song Elvis rap. Dylan’s phrasing is full of swagger. And Ding Dong Daddy brings it all home on “Early Roman Kings,” an adaptation of “Mannish Boy” with a tasty accordion courtesy of David Hildago.
Together Through Life, Dylan’s last album of originals, was a step down from his previous works, Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times. TTL was a short album, and a handful of performances were flat. At some point artistic creativity fades, buy apparently these laws don’t apply to Mr. Dylan. Tempest is colossal. Roll on Bob!
I pray to Lord my soul to keep
In the forest of the night
Cover him over and let him sleep
Shine your light
You burn so bright
Roll on John.
01 :: Duquesne Whistle
02 :: Soon After Midnight
03 :: Narrow Way
04 :: Long and Wasted Years
05 :: Pay In Blood
06 :: Scarlet Town
07 :: Early Roman Kings
08 :: Tin Angel
09 :: Tempest
10 :: Roll On John
Bob Dylan – Duquesne Whistle (Video):