Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

41. Tempest (2012)

This post is a little later than planned.  On January the 11th I was all ready to start listening to Tempest, Bob's 35th studio album and number 41 in the BobBox, when Dame Bowie shuffled off this mortal coil.  Inevitably I've spent much of the last couple of weeks revisiting his huge catalogue, and what with this, a lot of music received for Christmas, and some excellent new year album releases (including David's own incredible Blackstar), poor old Bob didn't get much of a look in.

So anyway, now I've made my excuses, let's finally have a look at Tempest.

Once again Dylan takes us back to a time before he changed the musical landscape, employing the same pre-rock 'n' roll palette as on his last few albums.  Charlie Sexton has returned to Bob's touring band, and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo makes another album appearance.  Dylan is clearly happiest overseeing his own work these days, as this is yet another 'Jack Frost' production.  The familiar themes of love, sex, God and death are present, but overall Tempest is darker and more violent than anything that's come before.

Things start innocently enough with Duquesne Whistle, whose 43-second intro of cheery ragtime pedal steel and piano could be straight out of an episode of Theme Time Radio Hour, before it breaks into an engine-chug of brushed drums and thunking upright bass, Bob croaking malevolently "Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing, blowing like it's go' kill me dead". As opening tracks go it's a corker, and unsurprisingly was the lead single.  The video for it takes an equally black turn after its peppy start.


Soon After Midnight progresses in much the same way; this initially romantic ballad moves through lyrics about money-grabbing harlots, someone dragging a corpse through mud, and a disturbing mention of "the killing floors", the latter all the more chilling for the gentle way in which it is sung.  Dylan's voice on Tempest shifts between three main vocal styles: throaty gargle, soft growl and half-arsed drawl.  The gargle reappears on blues number Narrow Way, which sounds great against the saw-like riff as he snarls "If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me some day" at the end of each verse.  Long and Wasted Years is a wistful tale of a long-dead relationship, its achingly sad descending guitar riff perfectly expressing the regret and resignation of the couple painted as "Two trains runnin' side by side, forty miles wide".  

I've seen Pay In Blood described as "a bit radio-friendly".  I don't think this was meant as a compliment, but for me it's certainly one of the best songs on Tempest.  It's more expansive and hummable than its companions, but still fits in well.  It's written from the perspective of someone brutalised into becoming as though "made of stone", now only capable of "grinding my life out, steady and sure" and forever sleeping alone.  Bob's Old Testament growl is suitably grim.


Scarlet Town describes a desolate place filled with beggars, sinners, the dying and a "flat-chested junkie whore".  Violin, piano and picked banjo provide a rich deathbed, and Sexton's guitar break is just lovely.  Bob makes use of the riff from Mannish Boy for the workmanlike Early Roman Kings, angrily railing against the crooks (bankers?) "..in their sharkskin suits".  When he moans "I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings", it sounds as though he wishes it didn't.  Although the running time is around five minutes, its repetitive nature makes it start to drag early on, so it seems much longer.

Things get bloodier on murder ballad Tin Angel, whose story of a love triangle is similar to that of Black Jack Davey on Good As I Been To You, only this time all three come to a sticky end. Bob's menacing barks are underpinneded by wonderfully doomy bass.  Tin Angel is almost twice as long as Early Roman Kings, but is much more engaging both musically and lyrically.

The title track and centrepiece of the album (actually second-to-last song, but you know what I mean) is a 14-minute epic telling of the sinking of the Titanic 100 years before.  Over 45 verses Dylan combines historical fact with the 1997 movie version, plus a good deal of his imagination, describing acts of desperation, treachery and sacrifice, as all the while the ship's watchman lay asleep at his post, dreaming of the vessel sinking.  There's no chorus, but Bob's expressive delivery and arresting imagery make it compelling to the end, and the Irish melody played by Hidalgo on accordion and Donnie Herron on fiddle keeps it rolling along.  Musically, it would have benefited from more frequent instrumental breaks - there are only three very short ones - but I suppose that would have made it even longer!


The only turd in the swimming pool is final song Roll On John, a mawkish, rather hackneyed ode to Lennon that references Beatles and solo lyrics as well as autobiographical details.  It's not as bad as his awful tribute to Lenny Bruce, but it's a piss-weak ending to an otherwise very good album.

Tempest is full of one-way journeys into oblivion, from the Duquesne train that "Sounds like it's on a final run", through the husband pursuing his errant wife, to the death of Lennon on distant shores.  These songs of finality are populated with heroes and villains, where quite often it's the women who are portrayed as the least appealing; as well as the aforementioned junkie whore, there's an adulteress, reference to "a bitch and a hag", and a "greedy-lipped woman".  Dylan's world was once inhabited by goddesses and redemptive figures, but here the pedestals sit empty.

Musically, Tempest treads the same water as his other 21st century work, drawing on folk, pre-war pop and (snore) the blues.  The band play beautifully, though the repetitive nature of the melodies makes for monotony in some cases, and the lack of instrumental breaks and interesting fills means that a couple of songs drag quite badly.  But apart from the odd predictable rhyme, his lyrics are engrossing, and as long as you're a fan of his shredded voice, there's much to enjoy here.

I'd rate Tempest as not as good as "Love And Theft", but better than Together Through Life. There are no new revelations, but at this point in his career Dylan is a collector and an historian, and Tempest further consolidates his millenium renaissance, adding to his legacy rather than taking away from it.

This is the last new album of Bob's own material and I'm a little sad to have come to the end of his career (so far) as a songwriter, but I'm also excited about listening to the final album in the BobBox: the 2-disc collection of previously released non-album songs Side Tracks.



*****BobBox price check*****

amazon.co.uk - £128.63 (free postage)
Discogs - from £113.26
Spin CDs - £99.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99

All prices correct on 26/01/2016




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