In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan was told about a critic who said that Justin Bieber couldn’t sing any of the songs on Tempest, Dylan’s new album. Dylan replied, “I couldn’t sing any of his songs either.”
That exchange captures what’s great about Dylan’s output over the past two decades.
The man’s voice is shot, no question. He has never had much range, but he sounds like Bono on his early albums when compared to his recent work.
But rather than hang up his guitar, or write songs for other people, Dylan has adjusted his focus to fit his voice. Starting with a pair of cover albums released in the early 90s, he has released eight records of traditional blues and folk songs. Songs sometimes spoken more than sung. Songs that demand to be performed by a voice of authority, a voice that has gone through hell and lived to sing about it.
The high point of that string of albums remains 2001’s Love and Theft, a mischievous masterpiece that ranks among Dylan’s finest work. Modern Times and Time Out of Mind sit just behind it, and 2009’s Together Through Life is a loose-limbed old man bordertown party record.
Tempest is similar to all of those records in sound and style, but it also feels different. The album was released in the 50th year of Dylan’s recording career and, in part because it shares a title with Shakespeare’s final play, rumors have swirled that this is Dylan’s swan song. It’s hard not to listen to it with that in mind, even if Dylan himself has dismissed that suggestion.
The songs on Tempest are dark and sometimes violent, emotionally and physically. In some songs, Dylan seems to get more personal that he has in decades. Check out this verse from the powerful ‘Long and Wasted Years':
The whole world behind me burned
It’s been a while
Since we walked down that long, long aisle
We cried on a cold and frosty morn
We cried because our souls were torn
So much for tears
So much for these long and wasted years
The two most talked-about songs on Tempest are the album’s closers. The title track is a 14-minute epic (without a chorus) about the sinking of the Titanic. It is a 45-verse poem sung over a lilting Irish track, mixing fact and fiction the way the best folk tales do. Dylan even finds room for “Leo” and “his sketchbook,” though he fails to mention Kate Winslet.
Is the song way too long? Of course. But it’s also grimly beautiful and charmingly audacious.
The final track, ‘Roll On John,’ is a touching tribute to John Lennon that works Beatles lyrics into a somber remembrance of Dylan’s old friend. Why a John Lennon tribute in 2012? Who knows? Since when has Bob Dylan done anything because it made sense.
Other tracks are a bit more traditional. ‘Early Roman Kings’ and ‘Narrow Way’ are paint-by-numbers blues jams, made distinctive by their lyrics. As a wordsmith, Dylan is in top form on this album. ‘Tin Angel’ and ‘Scarlet Town’ are long, dark journeys narrated by Dylan in Voice of God mode.
‘Soon After Midnight’ is a delicate love ballad, the loveliest thing Dylan has recorded in years, even if it includes a reference to him dragging a rival’s corpse through the mud.
I don’t know if Tempest will be Dylan’s last album. I kind of doubt it. Making music is what he does, what he’s been doing for 50 years. Why would he stop now?
But if this is the end of the road, it’s a fitting one. Bold, enigmatic, disturbing, romantic, bizarre… it’s as hard to read as the man himself, and as easy to enjoy.
There’s ivy leaf and silver thorn
The streets have names that you can’t pronounce
Gold is down to a quarter of an ounce
The music starts and the people sway
Everybody says, “Are you going my way? ”
Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill
Scarlet Town is under the hill.
Scarlet Town in the month of May
Sweet William Holme on his deathbed lay
Mistress Mary by the side of the bed
Kissin’ his face and heapin’ prayers on his head
So brave, so true, so gentle is he
I’ll weep for him as he would weep for me
Little Boy Blue come your blow horn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours,
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late
By marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
In Scarlet Town, the end is near
The Seven Wonders of the World are here
The evil and the good livin’ side by side
All human forms seem glorified
Put your heart on a platter and see who will bite
See who will hold you and kiss you good night
There’s walnut groves and maplewood
In Scarlet Town cryin’ won’t do no good
In Scarlet Town, you fight your father’s foes
Up on the hill, a chilly wind blows
You fight ‘em on high and you fight ‘em down in
You fight ‘em with whiskey, morphine and gin
You’ve got legs that can drive men mad
A lot of things we didn’t do that I wish we had
In Scarlet Town, the sky is clear
You’ll wish to God that you stayed right here
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
The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
It’s all right there in front of you in Scarlet Town