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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


Bob Dylan is 71. Always-strong critical showings from such septuagenarian contemporaries as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Tom Zé still don't even come close to his towering impact. After all, they weren't presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He's probably the only musician in America from whom people await yet another classic at such an age. From no less an authority than Rolling Stone, the early buzz on Tempest is that it's his first masterpiece since Love and Theft -- which was an unfathomable 11 years ago. Let's see if they're right.

"Duquesne Whistle"

Tempest's first single has already been compared to Louis Armstrong -- maybe because Dylan spends so much time talking about blowing (and don't think he's not flaunting the entendre possibilities: "Blowing like she's at my chamber door"). But also his voice, which David Bowie once likened to "sand and glue," sounds like gravel and cement. Nonetheless, this is his happiest-sounding melody in years -- only Love & Theft's "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" matches it for sheer gallop, combined with the gorgeous ragtime chords of Modern Times. Huge starting point. And huh, it's pronounced "du-cane."

"Soon After Midnight"

"I'm searching for phrases/ To sing your praises," Dylan carefully measures in a surprising prom theme croon. It's after midnight and he's got a date with -- seriously -- a faerie queen. Modern Times was a lilting throwback and a hodgepodge of sorts, but this is straight-up "Earth Angel." Except make out the words in his phlegm-y grit and you'll hear a muttering about "two-timing" and an "I'll drag his corpse through the mud." It becomes a love song again for the last line, as if he wanted to peer around to make sure no one just caught him.

"Narrow Way"

This seven-minute jump blues would've fit perfectly on Love and Theft, with its pleasantly grating, sawed slide riff and grinning ironic refrain ("If I can't work up to you/ You'll surely have to work down to me someday"). The second fantastic one, really sly and hilarious with quotables galore. Some of the best are "Even death has washed its hands of you," "It's a hard country to stay alive in," "Behind a thousand tongues/ I could've held them all" and that's merely the first half. One of his most electric-sounding songs ever, I think, plus around five minutes in he motorboats a fat girl.

"Long and Wasted Years"

The music has that funereal float of the slow songs on R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, while the narrative swing of the sung-spoken words bites from Lou Reed's exclamatory style. "Oh baby! You just might have to go to jail someday!" Pretty funny in a macabre way, too. "I haven't seen my family in 20 years!" he muses, "they may be dead by now." Then he quotes "Twist and Shout" and it just gets weird and sweet. "If I ever hurt your feelings/ I apologize." Brief, warm, and odd.

"Pay in Blood"

Speaking of Reed, this groove is caught somewhere between Set the Twilight Reeling and Luna's Bewitched. (Luna's an excellent band, run don't walk to their Amazon used listings). This one's grand, ratty vocal dares you to put him in front of a firing squad. Love how virtually tuneless he is in this hoarse, post-Waits carnival barker voice his scribble has disintegrated into. "You bastard! I'm supposed to respect you?" later devolves into "I'll break your lousy head." Credo: "I pay in blood/ But not my own."

"Scarlet Town"

This is quickly becoming his creepiest album. Haunting violin and flecks of doleful banjo -- who does he think he is, Pentangle? This is a murder ballad a la the Handsome Family, right down to the "sweet William" reference. Local color's strong here ("The streets had names that you can't pronounce") and his punchy word-at-a-time diction wouldn't be difficult to see the late, great Warren Zevon reading. Seven minutes, though -- the spookiness gets silly when it's finally apparent it's not going anywhere. His tone is most derisive on this album, unless I missed him dismissing a "junkie whore" on Freewheelin' or something.

"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").


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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