When I started this project, Boston was still emerging from a long, mild winter. I was traipsing around the city in jackets and sweaters, high-stepping to those early albums. Then spring kicked in, and summer arrived, and Dylan’s age seemed to rise with the temperature. Now, five months deep, the weather’s turning again. I’m waiting for the bus in pants and long sleeves, a hoodie overtop, listening to Tempest and contemplating the passage of time.
This album, Tempest, is Dylan’s last studio album of original work, at least for the time being. His twilight sound is familiar now–instrumentations evocative of pre-rock musical modes; a growling, crooning voice possessed with endless couplets, by turns facile, borrowed, and brilliant. This style allows Dylan to pump out the tunes deep into his sixties, without risking flops and duds.
Thus, there’s a security inherent in these later albums, safety and comfort like a favorite cozy sweater. The lead track, “Duquesne Whistle” (pronounced Doo-cane), nestles into that space between familiarity–the chirping guitars, shuffling snare drum, and thumping upright bass harkening the happy-go-lucky 1920s–and foreboding through Dylan’s ravaged voice. “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’ / Blowin’ like it’s gonna kill me dead.” This bright/dark contrast establishes an irony that suffuses this album.
None of the tracks that follow, however, even approach the playfulness of that album opener. But the irony persists. No surprise, Dylan ushers us one-by-one through repackaged styles. “Soon after Moodnight” evokes big-band, Rat-Pack style proclamations undercut with surprising lines like, “I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” Track three, “Narrow Way,” takes up Buddy Holly-style 2/4 skiffle rock while “Long and Wasted Years” reanimate the love-ballad genre with a descending guitar motif and Dylan free associates: “Shake it up baby twist and shout, you know what it’s all about / What you doing out there in the sun anyway? You know the sun can burn your brains right out.” If anything, Dylan and his band, hardened and sharpened through the “Never Ending Tour,” have come to excel at reaching back to reinvent.
But after four tracks, “Tempest” is just warming up. The fifth number, “Pay in Blood,” is a mid-album highlight. “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim / I got dogs could tear ya’ limb from limb,” Dylan growls over an impetuous groove. The chorus here consists of one line, tacked onto and emerging always from the end of each verse: “I’m circling around the southern zone / I pay in blood, but not my own.” This mainstay of Dylan’s songwriting–the clipped, emphatic chorus that rhymes with verse ends–is as characteristic of his style as any dialect or theme. Think “Desolation Row,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Not Dark Yet.” These songs contain power coupled with propulsion. On Tempest, that energy becomes ominous, shrouding the Dylan persona in danger and wrongdoing.
I’ve come to like this menacing Dylan. He reminds me of the nefarious hobos “Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum,” those “low down dirty old [men]” from Love and Theft who “will stab you where you stand.” In “Scarlet Town” that persona “attacks the guard” amid fiddle- and banjo-echoes of Irish folk. “Early Roman Kings” is fleshed-out Blues that sounds as if it’s sung by a phantasmagoric circus-barker with black teeth and lung cancer. The song title “Tin Angel” might suggest a nod to the dance-piano of Tin Pan Alley, but in fact the tune features a pared-down arrangement for a tense retelling of a love triangle that ends awash in blood, like a Shakespearean tragedy.
Though Shakespeare’s final play was titled The Tempest, Dylan shot down any connection between the two. But the synchronicities are unmistakeable. Even “Pay in Blood” evokes Shylock the predatory money lender from Merchant of Venice demanding his “pound of flesh.” So like a good tragedy, the album itself nearly ends with one of the most infamous disasters of the twentieth century. “Tempest” retells, over an Irish folk arrangement, the sinking of the Titanic. But not the historical Titanic. James Cameron’s Titanic, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. No, seriously, “Leo took his sketchbook,” Dylan sings with highland zeal. “He was often so inclined / He closed his eyes and painted / The scenery in his mind.”
At nearly fourteen minutes, his titular song could’ve joined the pantheon of Dylan’s impossibly long and labrynthine album closers—“Desolation Row,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” “Highlands.” And then Dylan’s studio efforts would’ve ended with neither a bang nor a whimper, but slow sinking into oblivion. Yet Dylan changes it up here. “Roll on John,” instead, is the final track, a sentimental ballad that bestows closure on John Lennon’s life: “You burned so bright / Roll on John.” Thirty years after Lennon’s murder, his life still weighs on Dylan, who performs this tribute to another pop luminary. “I heard the news today oh boy,” Dylan sings, borrowing Lennon’s own words, “They hauled your ship up on the shore.”
Dylan presents to us his familiar pattern, but he changes it up a hair. His albums seem to rotate with and respond to the seasons. His voice carries on the breeze. The fall winds hit like an old friend—but as much as that friend is here to prop us up, here’s also here to cut us down.