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Dylan’s ‘Tempest’ reconfirms him as a great American musician

Album Review | 4 out of 5 stars

Published: Friday, September 21, 2012

Updated: Friday, September 21, 2012 02:09

Ever the enigmatic figure, Bob Dylan has resisted easy analysis over his five−decade career during which he has employed a chameleon−like quality in switching between roles. Dylan’s 35th studio album, “Tempest,” sees him fully embracing the recent role of grizzled old bluesman he has taken on in his past few albums to great effect. “Tempest” is an incredible late−career highlight for Dylan, who has crafted a dark and captivating stunner of a record, filled with dynamic musical changes and some of his most violent imagery ever.

The album opens with the sound of an old−time whistle, which evokes the feeling of the early 20th century. The song then changes into a light−hearted shuffle. “Duquesne Whistle” at first seems slightly at odds with the darker tone of the rest of the album, until an ominous sense of foreboding begins to creep in. Dylan wryly delivers lines such as, “Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowin’/Blowin’ like the sky’s gonna fall apart.” The effect is that of Dylan inviting the listener to embark on a journey through the strange and twisting subject matter that lies ahead. The end of the song shifts suddenly into a sinister−sounding riff, which is representative of the constant surprises throughout “Tempest.”

One thing that has been a frequent topic of discussion over the past few years is the quality of Dylan’s voice, or lack thereof. Admittedly his voice is a raspy shell of what it used to be — which was never too aesthetically pleasing to begin with — yet Dylan’s ragged growl has surprising range. It turns out to be an asset to the subject matter in “Tempest” by helping the singer present himself as a raspy and weary old bluesman. In the ballad “Soon After Midnight,” Dylan loses the ragged edges for most of the song and displays a convincing vulnerability and determination when he sings “I’m not afraid of your fury/I’ve faced stronger walls than yours.” It takes a certain quality to make a statement like that sound believable, and Dylan’s gravelly voice makes it conceivable that the narrator has experienced the pain required to make that sentiment feel authentic.

Dylan’s growl is also a highlight in one of the best tracks on the album, “Pay in Blood.” The song sees Dylan evoking violent imagery as the narrator repeats the chorus “I pay in blood, but not my own” after detailing his violent threats to others. The growl serves as the perfect embodiment of the combination of dark lyrics and ever−changing music that “Tempest” does so well. Whenever Dylan delivers threats of violence in the song, his band launches into a crunching riff that accentuates the raspy bark he uses with biting lines such as “I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim/I got dogs could tear you limb from to limb” and “Someone must’ve slipped a drug in your wine/You gulped it down and you crossed the line.” This makes for an overall chilling effect, and allows listeners to effectively believe they’re in the dark and twisted world of “Tempest.”

The album’s title track stands in stark contrast to other songs on the albums. The song “Tempest” is a 14−minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic comprised of all verses and no chorus. A solo violin provides the song’s only melody, with the rest of Dylan’s band settling into a gentle riff to create the effect of an Irish folk ballad. Dylan serves as the old storyteller relaying an epic tale from long ago. While the song is not necessarily historically accurate, Dylan nimbly jumps between humor and horror when describing the scene that unfolds as the ship begins its final plunge.

“Tempest” ends with a tribute to the late John Lennon in the final song “Roll On John.” Dylan sings the song with a weary sense of survivor’s guilt, evoked in the chorus “You burned so bright/Roll on, John.” And in one of the most brilliant moments of the entire album, Dylan incorporates the line “I heard the news today, oh boy” from the Beatles classic “A Day in the Life” into the song. Delivered through Dylan’s rattle, the line takes on a melancholic air and helps deliver a tremendous finale.

“Tempest” is an album that demands multiple listens, with new musical tricks and lyrical meanings appearing with every subsequent airing. But it is obvious from even a first listen that Bob Dylan has crafted an album that stands alongside his best. The world of “Tempest” is dark and twisted, but it is certainly rewarding.

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