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Bob Dylan’s Sly Trip to Hell on Earth

by PETER STONE BROWN

Tempest is Bob Dylan’s 34th studio album.  He has now been recording for half a century and if this album is an indication, he has no intention of slowing down.  It is an album that is like everything he’s ever done and at the same time like nothing he’s ever done.  It takes quite a bit of magic to pull that off, and Dylan is a magician and a trickster and it is this unpredictability that has kept his fans, no matter when they came in along the journey entranced.  The nods to the past on this album are mostly musical and he continues his exploration of the various genres that make up American music, whether it’s blues, swing, rock and roll, country and folk music.

In the ’60s and the ’70s, once he started recording with other musicians, Dylan’s records were a kind of inspired chaos.  Musicians would gather in a studio, usually great ones, he’d start playing, the tapes would roll and whatever happened happened.  And this went on with a couple of exceptions depending on who was producing for the next 30 years.  This started to change with Time Out Of Mind and definitely with “Love And Theft”, an album that among many other things was also an exploration of musical styles and genres.

On Tempest, there is not a note out of place.  Every arrangement, every instrument used, and how they were used and what is played has clearly been thought out.  And this extends to how the album was recorded and mixed, the microphone placement and most importantly, how the songs would be sung.

And speaking of singing, Dylan hasn’t sounded this energized and committed in 11 years.  His voice may be in shards and shreds, but the force is back.  There are times when it’s astoundingly sweet and times when it’s right in your face and it’s not necessarily pleasant, and it’s not meant to be pleasant.  The album The Times They Are A-Changin’ wasn’t supposed to be pleasant either.

For those who maybe were hoping for some kind of rallying cry on the raging American insanity and the apparent worldwide despair so prevalent in the 21st Century, look elsewhere.  Ever since Dylan abandoned the topical song game two years into his career, he’s always gone for the bigger, deeper and broader picture.  At the same time, this is not to say that connections cannot be made.

Tempest is a collection of songs written and sung in various ways against a variety of musical backgrounds in which the people in those songs continually do horrible things to each other, and there is no relief and no escape.  It is relentless.  And when it’s not being pounded in by the words, it’s pounded in by the music.  Death appears in every song, and it is cold, brutal and unforgiving.

There is also very little reason to think that the “I” in any of the songs (with the possible exception of the closing track) is Dylan himself.  There are stories told by a master storyteller, and ballads sung by the greatest of all ballad singers.

The opening song “Duquesne Whistle” starts with this cool little ’30s intro with guitar, steel and piano before the drums kick it into Western Swing mode with Tony Garnier’s double bass dominant in the mix propelling the song.  It’s at once a train song and love song, except the train is on it’s final run, and the lyrics are full of one, two punches:

Can’t you hear that Duquesne Whistle blowin’?

Blowin’ like the sky’s gonna blow apart

You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going

You’re like a time bomb in my heart

From there the music moves forward right into the heart of the ’50s and even early ’60s with a rock and roll ballad, “Soon After Midnight,” where Donnie Herron’s pedal steel stands out.  Dylan sings so gently, carefully and sweetly that you’re almost startled by how good he sounds.  The first time I heard it, I could imagine Otis Redding singing it.  At first you think, okay a nice, even amusing, even charming rock and roll ballad, but then all of a sudden, “Charlot’s a harlot, dresses in scarlet,” and in the next verse:

They chirp and they chatter
What does it matter?
They lie and dine in their blood
Two timing Slim
Who’s every heard of him?
I’ll drag his corpse through the mud

“Narrow Way” a bluesy rocker has this insistent guitar riff probably played by Charlie Sexton that never lets up.  The guitar tone is so downright nasty it’s like a jackhammer that is suddenly breaking the sidewalk up outside your window at 6 in the morning.  It is one of the craziest guitar riffs I’ve ever heard played over an equally raunchy slide deeper in the mix.  The lyrics alternate from place to place and subject to subject, starting with a person on the song walking across the desert until he’s in his right mind, but then the second verse shifts to:

Ever since the British, burned the White House down
There’s a bleeding wound, in the heart of town
I saw you drinking, from an empty cup
I saw you buried, and I saw you dug up

And then a couple of verses later:

We looted and we plundered, on distant shores
Why is my share not equal to yours?
Your father left you, your mother too
Even death has washed its hands of you

For 11 verses the song rambles between men and women, friendship and betrayal, and past and present the guitar which conjures up visions of Howlin’ Wolf gone mad running through some shiny towering corporate complex pounds your brain.

This is followed by “Long And Wasted Years,” a talking song with a celestial descending riff, where again pedal steel guitarist Donnie Herron shines.  It would be easy to say it picks up where “Brownsville Girl” left off a couple of decades later, and it also echoes another great talking song, the unreleased Basement Tapes song, “Sign On The Cross,” and there are times on this that somehow Dylan manages to pull out for a few seconds that Basement Tapes voice.  Throughout the song Dylan quotes a variety of sources, old blues, old rock and roll, Tennessee Williams.  But the song also serves as an interlude to  catch your breath.

“Pay In Blood” is an absolute killer track and a real return to rock and roll, recalling mid-’70s Stones and Warren Zevon with a bit of Motown thrown in.  Dylan’s voice is at its most gravelly and he’s right at the mic literally rubbing it right in your face with an attitude that says I don’t give a damn, you are going to hear this, and I’m going to shout it like I’ve never shouted before.  It is the audio equivalent of his 1976 TV special Hard Rain where the attitude clearly was okay, you want to see me, I am going to push close-ups of my face right into your living room.  Each verse has a bridge part that is totally evil and totally intense, and it’s the combination of the music, the structure of the music, and Dylan’s voice that doubles the intensity.  It is quite possibly the most on-purpose and determined vocal he’s ever done.

If there’s a song on this album about now, “Night after night, day after day/They strip your useless hopes away,” “Pay In Blood is it, a song of total betrayal and rage at that betrayal.

I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun

I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done

And later:

I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?
You bastard, I’m supposed to respect you?
I’ll give you justice, I’ll fatten your purse

Show me your moral virtue first

Any words I write cannot do the song and this performance of this song justice.  It is one of the most brilliant things he’s done.

Dylan then heads South and back to his musical starting point for “Scarlet Town.”  A ballad, an ancient ballad, one that crossed ocean – or did it?  This is spooky Dylan territory and when he’s at his best.  The music, a repeating three note guitar line that sets the rhythm a mandolin, a banjo, a fiddle, way in the background, a piano, the bass and drums contributing but never intruding.

The song counters each vision of what initially seems like a country town paradise with a description of what can only be hell.  The song spans time and consciousness, past, present, future and some murky area between all of them.  It is a place where “Help comes, but it comes too late,” and “All human forms seems glorified.”

“Early Roman Kings” takes Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” (or if you choose Muddy Waters’ rewrite “Mannish Boy” – both are really rewrites of Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”) and by going backwards in history (maybe) brings it up to date.  The first song from Tempest released on the Internet, the initial reaction of a lot of people myself included was what, another obvious blues song?  However, in the context of the entire album and perfectly placed after “Scarlet Town,” it makes total sense.  With David Hidalgo’s accordion providing what usually would be a harmonica part it soon becomes clear that the early Roman kings wearing “sharkskin suits” may not be back in Rome at all:

They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers

They buy and they sell

They destroyed your city

They’ll destroy you as well

They’re lecherous and treacherous

Hell-bent for leather

Each of ’em bigger

Than all of them put together

Dylan then shifts easily from Chicago (or is it Detroit?) to the Appalachian Mountains (or is it the forests of Old England) for another ballad “Tin Angel.”  Borrowing characters and part of the story from the ballad “Gypsy Davey,” (or its variant “Blackjack Davey”), for 28 verses in a bizarre combination of ancient and modern ballad writing set against a repetitive figure that one could imagine Dock Boggs playing, it’s a story of a love triangle that ends in murder and suicide with all three dead.  It is written in such a way that all three of the major characters in the story, The Boss, The Lady, and Old Henry Lee (there also is a servant) speak often in the same verse with Dylan acting out each part and at the same time narrating the story.  One would almost think the setting is the same as the original ballad, except the language alternates between ancient and modern and when the boss discovers his Lady and her lover, he cuts an electric wire.  It may well be the strangest song Dylan has yet come up with.

This leads into the title track, a 45 verse epic ballad about the sinking of the Titanic in which no iceberg appears and a watchman (who may or may not be on the ship) is dreaming.  The melody is simply gorgeous in fact jubilant with echoes of Celtic folk music with possibly two fiddles as Dylan describes the actions of various characters fictional and real as the ship sinks and chaos onboard ensues.  For almost 14 minutes Dylan holds your attention and there are times when he sounds curiously joyous in a way that reminded me of the Newport ’64 version of “Chimes of Freedom) available on video where he seems to delight in the words he’s singing and that he wrote them.  That could be the case here and if not, could it be the song isn’t a about the Titanic at all?

Dylan concludes the album with a totally moving, and melodically beautiful part tribute part eulogy to John Lennon.  Why now doesn’t matter.  On a personal note, I’m still upset about it more than three decades later.  Quoting occasionally from various Lennon and Beatles songs, he tells various parts and aspects of Lennon’s story and it’s one of those things where you have to hear the way he sings the lines he quotes.  However when he sings: “Now the city’s gone dark, there is no more joy/They tore the heart right out, and cut it through the core,” he totally captures the shock, the horror and most of all the loss of that cold December night that at times seems so long ago and somehow manages to seem like yesterday.

I am hesitant to compare Tempest to any of Dylan’s other albums or indulge in the best since whatever.  I keep thinking if it has a predecessor, it’s his film Masked And Anonymous, not in the storyline or the characters, but more in the ambiance of the background where it always seemed dark even when it was light, the busses were 60 years old and poverty everywhere.

Dylan again wisely uses his road band along with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on various instruments, and the album showcases their brilliance often in subtle ways as much as his.  And if at times the musical repetition in some of the songs seems endless, it’s for a reason.  As with his best albums, it is so dark and so deep, it will require years of exploration.  New revelations appear with each listen.

Something in these songs revitalized and energized Bob Dylan.  While his vocal range is long gone, he’s found new ways to use his powers.  The songs, like some earlier songs at various stages are deceptively simple.  In various online discussions about this album, I’ve seen the word sly used quite a few times, and there’s no better description of the songs and the way he sings them.  Tempest gives me every reason to think that Bob Dylan still has a few more tricks to pull out his bag.

PETER STONE BROWN is a musician, songwriter, and writer. He can be reached at: psb51@verizon.net or at his website.       

Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter.  His site and blog can be found here: http://www.peterstonebrown.com/

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