Dylan storms back with ‘Tempest’

Published 6:22 pm Saturday, September 8, 2012


By Bob Dylan

5 out 5 stars

Partway through his new album, Bob Dylan declares “I ain’t dead yet.”

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The 71-year-old music legend shows he’s still full of life on “Tempest,” an album filled with wit, metaphor and tragedy that is his strongest album in years.

Dylan’s 35th studio album will be released Tuesday, and it opens like something out of the Grand Ole Opry era with guitars sounding like a train whistle on “Duquesne Whistle.”

Despite an album that often sounds like old-time radio and references historical events and figures from John Lennon to the Titanic, the album is more current and culturally relevant than his later releases.

The album carries on the tradition of Dylan’s most recent albums like “Time Out of Mind,” “Love & Theft,” “Modern Times” and “Together Through Life,” but “Tempest” will likely go down as the masterpiece of Dylan’s later years.

His voice is still the weathered growl it’s been since the late 1980s, and it’s perhaps most pronounced on “Pay in Blood,” where he scowls the words “I pay in blood, but not my own.”

Still, Dylan’s delivery is somehow smoother on this release. The sweet-sounding love song “Soon After Midnight” reveals a lighter side to Dylan and his voice as he sings “It’s late after midnight, and I’ve got a date with a fairy queen.”

The song is one of the brighter moments on an album of dark images. As with most Dylan albums, his words take center stage.

His talented band remains in the background in bluesy old-time rock, but they fill the space between Dylan’s words without demanding the spotlight.

Dylan’s lyrics reference Uncle Tom, the British burning down the White House, and even Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic” — it seems metaphor trumps historical accuracy. “Tempest” is Dylan’s most poetic and poignant albums in years, and his words carry as much meaning and symbolism as his classic albums.

But unlike his “protests songs” from the 1960s, “Tempest” functions from a more distant perspective, with allegories and faint connections to the modern world. Gone are the days when Dylan firmly set himself at the center of a political movement. He’s now content to avoid specifics and allow listeners to form their own conclusions.

On the bluesy “Early Roman Kings” Dylan sets up an image of those in power: “They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers / They buy and they sell / They destroyed your city / They’ll destroy you as well.” It’s hard not to find connections to modern America, as Dylan howls “I was up on Black Mountain the day Detroit fell.”

The modern connections continue, as the album reaches its lyrical peak on title track, “Tempest,” where Dylan sings through 14-minutes and 40-plus verses (with no chorus) of scenes and images of the Titanic’s sinking. He even sings about “Leo” — DiCaprio — as he references the tragic love story in James Cameron’s film “Titanic.”

“Tempest” is this album’s “Desolation Row,” as images and stories of the unsinkable ship’s demise pile up. It’s hard not to wonder and even assume Dylan is singing about the modern world and the current economic crisis.

Still, there’s a level of disbelief — even at the end of the song — as Dylan references one character in his drama “He dreamed that Titanic was sinking into the deep blue sea.”

After “Tempest,” Dylan closes the album with another tragedy, and he sings about another 1960s music legend: John Lennon. On the melancholy “Roll on John,” Dylan references Lennon’s classics like “A Day in the Life,” as Dylan sings about a music legend “about to breathe your last.” “Tempest” and “Roll On John” share a similar theme: The mighty fall. But he calls for Lennon’s words to continue to “shine one.”

Some have theorized “Tempest” may be Dylan’s final album, since it’s named after William Shakespeare’s final play, “The Tempest.” However, Dylan refuted that theory.

Music fans can only hope Dylan keeps going, as he continues to prove he’s got plenty left. If this ends up being Dylan’s final curtain, it’s hard to imagine him going out on a higher note.

 Did you know?

“Tempest,” set to be released on Sept. 11, will come out more than 50 years and 35 studio albums after Bob Dylan debuts. His self-titled album was released in March of 1962.