Tempest by Bob Dylan (Columbia)
Ringing Roger, October 2012
In my experience people either ‘get’ Bob Dylan or they don’t. If they do, they become obsessive, even fanatical. I don’t come across many people who say they really like ‘When The Ship Comes In’ but see no point in exploring his work further. For the real ‘Bobhead’, it’s necessary not only to immerse oneself in the complete recordings, but also to follow Dylan’s hints, and explore the two influences that are most important to him: religion and ‘roots’ music. For Dylan these are complementary. He has famously declared: ‘Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book. All my beliefs come out of those old songs … I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back towards those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing “I Saw The Light”.’
These new songs of Dylan’s may not convert many listeners to his kind of belief, but they will certainly grab their attention and, having done so, remind them that death, disaster and damnation are themes that are worth pondering. Dylan’s voice, which always sounded a lot older than he was, has now matured into a hypnotic growl which holds you from first note to last.
Musically this is probably Dylan’s most interesting album since Time Out Of Mind. I couldn’t begin to list all the genres which he explores and expands, but I fancy that the catchy opening track ‘Duquesne Whistle’ is in part his homage to a now-neglected branch of country music known as ‘western swing’. Again, ‘Scarlet Town’ has a tune based on the traditional English folksong ‘Barbara Allen’, while the title track, ‘Tempest’, owes a great deal to the Carter Family’s song on the same subject, ‘The Titanic’. No doubt some will accuse Dylan of plagiarism. But that is to miss the point. He is honouring ‘those old songs’; he is keeping them alive; he is drawing on their past to help us face our present.
Nor should we overlook the literary allusions, which with Dylan have always intermingled with the musical. ‘Scarlet Town’ contains whole lines from various poems by the mid-19th-century American poet (and famous opponent of slavery) John Greenleaf Whittier. In the final song, Dylan’s elegy for his friend John Lennon, ‘Roll On John’, he quotes the earlier English poet William Blake (‘Tyger tyger burning bright’). Whittier, Blake and Dylan speak to us – all three – as contemporaries. This is how poets have been entering into dialogue with their predecessors for centuries.
After all, when it comes to the religious themes, we would be disappointed if Dylan didn’t quote scripture. He’s been doing so since his very first songs, and that’s entirely appropriate for a bard whose vision has been consistently apocalyptic. For Dylan, the end is always nigh. Here the very title of ‘Narrow Way’ suggests the Gospels: ‘For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it’ (Matthew 7.14). Less specifically, mention of the ‘desert’ in the first line of the same song evokes the world of the wandering Hebrews in the Book of Exodus. ‘Roll On John’ contains many New Testament echoes, most notably in the refrain ‘Shine your light’, which can’t help but remind us of ‘Let your light … shine before men’ (Matthew 5.16). Again, ‘Pay In Blood’ seems to be an ironic reversal of the idea of Christ as the innocent scapegoat: its angry, bitter refrain from a man bent on revenge, ‘I pay in blood but not my own’, forces you to decide where you yourself stand. Fifty years after his first album, Dylan is still challenging our complacency and bringing tradition bang up to date.