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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bob Dylan's Tempest: A First Listen

Posted By on Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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"Early Roman Kings"

The last of the normal songs before the three Dostoyevsky novels that end the record, this one's a hoot. David Hidalgo's organ and some uncharacteristic shaker help shade in a fun 12-bar blues about a celebrity version of the Roman kings (or some clever current analogues) "in their sharkskin suits" for whom "all the women go crazy." Dylan has a barrel of fun making plays on the title, the historical back-and-forth. Between this ("I'd had my fun/ I've had my flings") and "Duquesne Whistle," this album successfully staves off the looming spectre that it has some expected finality to it. Dude sounds alive. Partying even.

"Tin Angel"

Nine minutes. Very folksy -- mentions Henry Lee. Enunciates the words so carefully it's almost like a nursery rhyme. The music is minimal and seasick, with wayward upright bass and minimal piano under-girding the rather pirate-like melody and imagery (bloody knuckles, greasy hair, ear-grazing bullets). At the climax (assume the music never changes so you can make out all the words) you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish him from Nick Cave ("It would take more than a needle and thread/ Bleeding from the mouth he's as good as dead") before a star-crossed tragic ending ("She took a blade to the heart and she ran it through").

"Tempest"

Finally -- the swaying title epic we've been promised, 14 minutes chronicling the Titanic, Leonardo and all. The phrasing is often as majestic as Dylan gets: "He staggered to the quarter deck," "The universe had opened wide," "Fifty thousand tons of steel," etc. But it's nothing fancy or oblique -- sort of man-on-the-ship reportage by way of yes, Shakespeare. Problem is, this is no "Brownsville Girl" or "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." The music gets wearing because there's just no musical volleying to look forward to -- it's a legend reading off a page. But what a reading. Great quatrains include "Smokestack was leaning sideways/ Heavy feet began to pound/ He walked into the whirlwind/ The sky splitting all around"; "The veil was torn asunder/ Between the hours of 12 and 1/ But no change, no sudden wonder/ Could undo what had been done" and "They lowered down the lifeboats/ From the sinking wreck/ There were traitors, there were turncoats/ Broken backs and broken necks." He rhymes "shattered crystal" with "both his pistols," and "Leo" with "Clio." I can't imagine wanting to sit through this more than a couple times, but it delivers probably all that it could. Of its own proportions and probably of being "Dylan" himself he concludes: "There is no understanding/ For the judgment took God's hand."

"Roll on John"

By contrast, the seven-minute Lennon elegy is a relative comedown. Yes, he heard the news today, oh boy. But the words creak to sleep on this one, a lullaby for the unforgotten (and fellow legendary) deceased. It's a denouement for the simply largest death album of all time, even if a lot of that repetitious aural space in the second half could've been filled by things meatier than the words.

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