Tempest is Dylan’s 35thth studio album as they say, and what a beauty. The thrill is in hearing such a cross-sectional hodgepodgian mishmash of eclectic ways to say ‘Dylanesque pastiche.’ Like the surface of the earth, he’s all over the place—congo bongo, Django jazz, Flying Nun jangle, Northern soul, Canadian punk, gypsy rag, Scottish reel, Xenakisian electronica, gumbo dirge, Elvis-impersonator, beatnik poetry, Delta reggaetron, Hindi laptop, K-pop thrash, J-skronk, avante acoustic field, and an endless helping of Dylan’s take on Tuvan throat-singing. What may come as a relief to many fans, is that there’s no 12 bar blues here. It seems he’s gone all out to bring it all back home. Amen to that.
A ‘tempest’ is a violent windy storm, and you can well imagine all the musics of the world inside one of these things, spinning wildly around (like a broken record), Dylan flinging his mind at the walls of his sanity to break himself open and bleed out fifty years of the hell of an unwanted celebrity. It’s the chaos within which we are all somewhere mirrored—the dissolution of subjectivity into the true multiplicity of identity, like the event horizon of a black hole, the singularity sucking all musical and lyrical matter of the universe into its great intertextual weave, but which must acknowledge the evacuation of any notion of ‘soul.’
One interesting thing: the track-listing on the back of the record splits the songs differently to how they are actually played out (the labels are correct). One hopes this misprint will make my early review copy worth a fortune one day. I’ve only listened to this twice through so far, so I’ll refrain from any serious lyric interpretation. There’s a lot to sink in any new Dylan album. Two listens is only 1/20th of the way there. Anyhow, in the manner of your usual Bumstead review, let the real-time commentary begin…
Duquesne Whistle… the doo-kane whistle as it is phonetically known, opens the record, blasting loud and clear, a deep woody-airy kind of tone, which merges with a shunting rhythm section, a sludgy mechanical sound followed by squiggly guitar lines and (no kidding) electronic detritus in the manner of Autechre or Kid A, but weird and raspy; the effect is like listening to your macbook’s malfunctioning diskdrive while dodging burly men shoveling coal into the furnace of a steam-powered locomotive. Dylan clears his throat, gargles, coughs a couple of times and effects a growl, low and wolf-like, with a hint of snarl, something about devils at the door, mistletoe, life in a rundown shack, dadda’s broken back and this chorus of sorts, “A ways up the Monongahela River / I thought of Diego Rivera / The captain he wasn’t steerin’ / That’s when my dadda ‘gan swearin’ / ‘Bout being a’late for his hearing.” And so it seems when the steel mill closes down, the rhythm section drops out while the band starts clanging, banging and ringing, while Dylan sings about the hammers of judges convicting perfectly good men and women for the crime of trying to stay alive. There’s piercing triangle, bonging glocks and a weird sloop of a melody that fits with the grinding gearbox of a rhythm section, Dylan’s spooky old man gasp barely rising above a whisper for most of the song. It’s pretty weird stuff. An obvious touchstone is Tom Waits, but it should be the other way round. Waits is like the schoolboy in the song whose dadda’s going down with the town, this whole scenario captured in a mural by Diego Rivera, if I’m making any sense out of the narrative. The lyrics are all in these quintains about the landlord at the door, who deals with the devil. There’s several rhythmic twists in the song, and a lot of extraneous detail. As for Dylan’s voice; it’s his Christmas In The Heart schtick but with a lot more flem.
Soon After Midnight… is all jazzy lights, ethereal organ tones, cymbal twitters and vibes that hone right into your cochleae, an even more complex rhythm than the previous song, once again kind of like certain kinds of modern electronic beats stuff, Squarepusher say or Amon Tobin, but played on real instruments, with a certain floaty drifty feel, because the timing is deliberately ‘out,’ if that’s what you can call it. It sounds like broken clockwork. And the lyric is something about time travel: “We’re funneling time / Tunneling under / 1932 / Right back to where blue / Met red / We’ve been twirled through this brave new world / Hindenburg, Hoover / Wolverine howls / Tarzan, White Zombie / Murders down on rue morgue avenue.” Thereafter Dylan sing-raps in the manner of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and it’s actually quite nimble and articulate. The old guy can still move his lips. It gets a bit cabaret in the middle, the music that is, show tune type stuff, oh hang on, it’s a sort of dream piece, Pink Floyd-like, clockwork, alarms and a vacuumous sound before a piercing siren drowns them all out. Seems that “soon after midnight” is when “all the lights go out” and “the bloodsuckers come out” to fight. The whole thing is hard to pin down though, it sways heavy at the chordal level but drifts twinklebells and starry-eyes through what sounds like a snowy night.
Narrow Way… “The problem with the straight and the narrow,” sings Dylan a capella, with himself, “is that you keep sliding off to the side.” Just voice and a simple guitar part, electric, chugging along for about a minute before the band kick in and the song turns into a stomping barnyard rocker, all hoots and yells and hootenannys and whiplash, cat calls, and Dylan’s sneery voice, loud, yellingly so, punk and gruff and sounding like he’s ripping his throat apart to do this, but he does it anyway. The tune is huge, anthemic, with a female chorus section, a tuba keeping circus time, bagpipes, trombones. I don’t have a lyric sheet here and it’s difficult to make out the words, something about a girl called Ginnie and her swigging lots of whiskey. We get some fiery guitar solos intercut with this short jabbing ringing guitar part, sort of alternating then weaving together, and it’s easily the album’s most melodic number thus far.
Long And Wasted Years… is an amusing self-involved lyric where he builds up a series of rhymes with words like “killin’” and “spillin” which culminate in his own name, “Dylan.” Some kind of ironic fan thing? …about it being ‘work’ to listen to him. There’s a wild freeform miasma of sound, random brass, all overladen with a sweet acoustic guitar strum informing the ‘melody’ which might take me a few more spins to discern: “Lately I’ve been killin’ time / Sitting in my livin’ room / Miming air guitar and listening like a piston / To the works of Mister Dylan,” he croons, a delightfully wry grin in his voice which makes me think of the Nashville Skyline cover. “Cos this business of listening / Isn’t simply passive passing time / Appreciating rhyme and phrase / Nor is it getting wasted on the woolly vision / Of a mystic’s intuition / All cloistered like an oyster / As the sky keeps cracking poems / Back’n'forth between the speakers in my ear.” There’s a difficult mid-section all about metaphor and meta-morphing, songs and tunes running out of brains (which work like “combustion engines” with pistons and “dylan cylinders”) which are ultimately like sieves and drains. Then we get lines about how this ‘Mr. Dylan’ character’s songs only “exist to give us all a grilling / On our leaders’ acts of evil / And the planet’s evil axle / As exacted in the lyrics / Written in between the lines.” It’s a wry comedy track of sorts, mention of the internet at one point, something about the way information gets mirrored, fed on and endlessly looped back into “hard-drive fact.” There’s lots of references to characters from Dylan’s songs, Patty Valentine, Louis the King, Shakespeare, Will O’Conley and Napoleon among other latter day ones. Ever heard Sonic Youth’s “Youth Against Facism”? That’s what this sounds like! Seriously.
Pay In Blood… if you thought Dylan had already thrown fifty spanners in the works with the above four tracks, this is where things go really haywire. It’s not that he shifts through genres but rather that he seems to layer them over top of one another, not in a full-on noisy assault kind of way (though the previous two tracks were both quite abrasive and loud) but with a delicate and subtle layering of charms, allusions, gestures towards styles and rhythms and atonal modes; you hear only one sound and you think “ah he’s doing folktronica” say, but it shapeshifts out of that reference point so quickly, just leaving a trace of some distant memory, some evanescent sound or note that soon evaporates into something else altogether. In this song I thought I heard the electronic warble of The Cars’ “Heartbeat City” at one point, at another it was a guitar twang bottle slide and a wobbleboard, bowed saw, koto, stalacpipe organ, cymbalom and bazantar, gravikord and theremin, and I’m reminded of the Silver Apples and Joey McLanie, The Rudolphian Racketeers and The Chieftains. The lyrics are classic Dylan, nine quatrains of poetic majesty of which I shall quote only one glorious couplet: “You’re rising over me like deja vu baby / But I’m losing it like a conviction infected with fiction.” He does that great Dylan thing of throwing too many or too few syllables in a line but managing to get them all out of his mouth (in the case of too many), still able to fit them oddly into the rhythm, which is just bizarre, a complex behemoth of a track. Contrary to reports, not once in the lyric does he mention the title, “pay in blood.”
Scarlet Town… is the shortest song here, a folk ditty deathbed lament about “Scarlet Town” with references of course to Jeremy Grove and Barbary Allen. A violin jig plays softly in time behind the guitar but eventually takes over the melody. The tom-tom drums are beautifully recorded, a light pitter patter, crystal clear throughout the song. Very Celtic.
Early Roman Kings… in which Dylan sings about an alternative Roman history in which Remus has Romulus put in prison before he can be killed, the Roman empire swells through a succession of good kings who rule according to the mandate of the people, build up a network of intercontinental relations and the whole world sings to a green economy. The music most obviously connects this album back to Together Through Life, with Mexican flourishes, tympani, deep and rich and resonant, a jovial enough vibe to go hand in hand with the slightly comic narrative twist to the lyrics which I shall not divulge here. There’s a lot more going on than meets the ear or mind though, musically, all sorts of things bubbling under the basic swing of the band. The song has three distinct parts to it—each time the narrative takes a new direction, the same song continues but played with completely different instruments, always ‘real’ instruments (I think). Dylan’s voice is in good form here, friendly, cheerful sounding, like someone’s kind old granddad.
Tin Angel… is the only track I actively don’t like, though it may grow on me. It’s the simplest song here, almost dully so, in the manner of “Beyond the Horizon,” same kind of melody, rhythm and singing style. Lyrics are all perfectly audible, “I felt an angel’s kiss” which is a lyric I’m sure I’ve heard before. But it’s one of those lyrics that shifts through a complex set of metaphors such that it begins to sound solipsistic and you lose the thread after the first verse. Nothing much to say really.
Tempest… is the much-hyped Titanic track, all fourteen minutes worth of 1920s jazz, interplay between what sounds like a blurry, crackling Louis Armstrong-type trumpet sound which sort of ‘answers’ Dylan’s lyric which is sung from the iceberg’s perspective, about “fifty thousand tonnes of disaster headin’ my way.” But as the song progresses and the ship looms near, the jazz starts swirling up a ‘tempest’ of course, and the three or four different brass (alto sax, cornet, and bass sax) melodies spin together in a whirlwind of impending doom. This all breaks down at the 11th minute into electronica and frazzle. The lyric is quite a straightforward narrative but kept just figurative enough to satisfy the analogy hunters. It is definitely the standout track; the melodies are beautiful, buried and subtle in that way that ensures longevity. Meanwhile Dylan coughs and splutters at the end about losing his cool, and chips of ice, as the other seven-eighths of his mind, the sub- or unconscious part remains safe from the impact.
Roll On John… the Beatles’s steals are “he got hair down to his knee” and “a lucky man who made the break”…which is kind of uh, interesting. The song’s style recalls Plastic Ono Band songs like “Mother,” “Isolation” and “God,” with heavy piano chords and stuttering sitar groans. In fact that’s one thing I forgot to mention – the numerous piano styles heard across the album. It’s often short frills and interjections but there really is a dominant piano vibe, which mingles nicely with the Hindu-monk type wailing that forms a backdrop behind Dylan’s vocal. I haven’t listened to “Roll On John” carefully enough to figure out exactly how this is a homage to John Lennon; Dylan’s hardly one to be direct; it’s more like a lament to stardom and the kind of obsessed people …er…like me, who’d, you know… This song is kinda cool. It’s neat hearing Dylan do a kind of Lennon whine. I like it.
That was just a quick once-through to give you a better idea of what to expect. I’ll need to sit down with this, play it twenty more times and write out all the lyrics before I could seriously figure out what’s going on here. But it’ll come and I’ll post a more detailed review closer to the album’s actual release date.
By the way, if you’re a Dylan fan looking for something brilliantly Dylanesque to tide you over until September 11th, you might try checking out my catalogue reviews of The Felice Brothers, The Walkmen, or The Tallest Man On Earth, great bands/artists all of them. Alternatively, you might hunt down a copy of this baby: May Your Song Always Be Sung Vol. 3.
One other option is to ditch old man Dylan altogether and get caught up in the genius of Will Oldham instead.