A Fine Tempest
First, let’s talk about that voice. Never great to begin with, it’s nevertheless always been a magical match to the material. Say what you want about the ten million covers of “All Along the Watchtower,” “Masters of War” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” or the many other Dylan classics, that have been recorded over the years by much greater voices than his, but in the end, no one’s ever sung Bob Dylan as perceptively, as impassionedly, as urgently as…Bob Dylan. It surprises me when people gnash their teeth and complain about his singing today because to my knowledge (and ears) his vocals have always been less than golden. That voice, now a scary gravelly rasp, rendered on this latest recording in excruciating detail, is, to be NFL about it, what it is. If the voice is a deal breaker, then the Tempest will for you be more annoyance than resonance. Engineer Scott Litt (R.E.M., Nirvana) keeps Dylan’s voice forward and in the center of the mix while the musicians are spaced around him. The details are rich and varied and the sonic experience has a warm glow that leavens the hoarse edges to his voice.
The songs on Dylan’s 35th studio album are the same blues, protocountry, folk mash up that’s dominated the records he’s made in this decade. Lest anyone think Bob Dylan is growing soft and enjoying the revenue that comes from his endless concert tours, the lyrics of the Tempest, which like those on all Dylan records are a window into his journey, reject the love songs and generally lighter tone of a record like Love and Theft (2001), and plunge into a darker vision that goes so far as to include an oddball title track that’s a long, many versed retelling of the Titanic’s sinking; a tune that connects this living encyclopedia of American music to one of the most uniquely American strains of traditional music, the Titanic Song. Begun by an Afro-American spiritual, "The Titanic” and expanded by William and Versey Smith’s “When That Great Ship Went Down," this minigenre, which borrowed liberally from each other, found what is perhaps its fullest expression in “The Titanic” by The Carter Family.
Determined to prove as he says in “Early Roman Kings,” that “I ain’t dead yet/ My bell still rings,” he’s still committed to getting his hands into the guts of the human experience—at times on the Tempest, a little too literally. After the ebullient opening of “Duquesne Whistle,” a jumpy near dance number that bubbles over with a western swing crossed with small group swing jazz ebullience (with lyrics by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter), things begin to get wonderfully weird. In the long tale of a love triangle gone awry “Tin Angel,” he sings of the Tempest’s overarching theme, the nitty gritty and commonality of death.
“He was a man of strife, a man of sin
I cut him down and threw him to the wind
Well this she said with angry breath
You too shall meet the lord of death.”
In the soft, tuneful, midtempo “Soon after Midnight” which is ostensibly a love song in which there are still threats to “drag his corpse through the mud,” our songwriter even manages to get grim after the album’s most hopeful lines.
“My heart is cheerful
It's never fearful
I've been down on the killing floors.”
“Narrow Way,” is a Piedmont Blues number with a repeated electric guitar figure that could have been written by the late Junior Kimbrough. The Tempest features a trio of guitarists including Stu Kimball, Donnie Herron, Dylan regular Charlie Sexton and special guest David Hidalgo from Los Lobos. The lyrics of “Narrow Way,” again mix universalities with details that revel in the struggle and injury.
“This is hard country, to stay alive in
Blades are everywhere, and they're breaking my skin
I'm armed to the hilt, and I'm struggling hard."
This trend reaches its climax in “Pay in Blood,” where again his words soar before swooping deep into darkness and images of dismemberment.
“Night after night, day after day
They strip your useless hopes away
The more I take the more I give
The more I die the more I live
I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb
I'm circling around the Southern Zone
I pay in blood, but not my own.”
Even more bizarre and far more delightful is his continued interest in the fairer sex. Mammaries seem to be a particular focus, one mention being erotic, “I’m still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest/I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts,” the other being an example of how this seventy year old can still…ummm…tell it like it is (?).
“Set 'em Joe, play `Walkin' the Floor'
Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore
I'm staying up late, I'm making amends
While we smile, all heaven descends
If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
All things are beautiful in their time."
As a man who’s clearly on a mission; on the road year `round, the living embodiment of that famous line from the film Midnight Cowboy “I want to die on the stage,” he even nods this way in the line “I haven’t seen my family in 20 years” (“Long and Wasted Years”)Bob Dylan continues to be, like Neil Young, if not relevant, then still part of the discussion, which is more than can be said for a lot of younger writers. Thankfully, his fire burns on.
In a strange juxtaposition, the day that the Tempest was released, a package arrived in the mail from Music Direct, the owners/reactivators of the Mobile Fidelity label. Inside I found amongst other goodies, copies of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in both the UHR Stereo Hybrid SACD and GAIN 2 Ultra Analog 180 gram 45 RPM 2 LP formats. As is now standard with the Music Directera MoFi records, the packaging is absolutely gorgeous and without peer. With the exception of Premonition Records fine new series of Patricia Barber LP reissues, the MoFi LPs, both in their 45 RPM and 33 1/3 RPM editions, are beautifully done.
To compare this watershed record, one whose influence cannot in any way be overstated, with Tempest is unfair, yet it is fascinating to hear the threads of Dylan’s gifts that remain. While the love songs like the incomparable “Girl From The North Country,” have lessened over the years, and death has come to the forefront as it does with all older artists who are closer to their own mortality (Dylan was 22 when Freewheelin’ was released), the passion is undiminished. The breath and power of the material on Freewheelin’ is still breathtaking. There’s truly never been a record like it. The archetypal antiwar song “Masters of War,” the thunderclap warning of “A Hard Rain’s aGonna Fall,” the resignation/anger tangled love song, “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” the sly civil rights anthem, “Oxford Town,” and the timeless folk tune, thatbestWoodyGuthrietunethatWoodydidn’twrite, “Blowin’ In The Wind,” (whose melody is taken from the African American spiritual “No More Auction Block,”) are all stone classics and significant milestones in the Dylan song catalog. The sound of both the MoFi formats I received is the best I’ve ever heard, on a par with the original LP pressing and more intensely focused and transparent than the numerous LP and CD reissues since.