“Sweep My World Away”: Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

When the title of Bob Dylan’s thirty-fifth studio album was announced earlier this year, tongues were set wagging: would Tempest be, Prospero-like, the Bard’s farewell? As is his wont, Dylan scoffed: “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain “Tempest”. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.” A songwriter who has been so attuned to the rhythm and potency of single syllables should perhaps be heeded when he emphasises the absence of an article, but Tempest, a record which devotes almost fourteen of its minutes to the sinking of the Titanic, is nevertheless replete with lines which suggest the closing of curtains.

On the other hand, the album begins with as lilting and light-hearted a song as Dylan has recorded since the dour turn of 1997’s Time Out of Mind, an album which continues to stand head and shoulders above the other entries in Dylan’s late career surge, but which is uniquely troubled by Tempest. The playful video for ‘Duquesne Whistle’ – in which every cliché of the boy-meets-girl pop promo is subverted – starts as breezily as the song’s opening riff, and Dylan’s voice is as smooth and supple as it gets these days. Yet at about 3.49 the whole thing takes a seriously violent turn – and we return to the lyrics themselves, looking for a clue:

Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?
Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart.
You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going
You’re like a time bomb in my heart.

This explosive sense of things barely holding together – and that queer suggestion that most other things that keep the singer going are dead and gone (the album closes with ‘Roll on John’, a tribute to a Beatle absent now for more than thirty years) – recur throughout the record, giving its initially sprightly course a rough undercurrent. Indeed, the album’s structure mirrors this effect: it drifts along for the first two tracks, the syrupy sweetness of ‘Soon After Midnight’, and scratchy blues of ‘Narrow Way (“Ever since the British burned the White House down / There’s a bleeding wound, in the heart of town”) leaving the listener to understand they should expect Modern Times redux, ‘Spirit on the Water’ and ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ rearranged six years on. Then, however, come the arresting opening notes of ‘Long and Wasted Years’, like Blood on the Tracks meeting ‘Brownsville Girl’ for a mournful night at the bar’:

It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other but our hearts were true.
One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.
Last night I heard you talkin’ in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say,
Oh baby – you just might have to go to jail someday!
Is there a place we can go? Is there anybody we can see?
Maybe it’s the same for you as it is for me.

From this startling juncture onwards – Dylan’s voice expressive, his words piercingly pared, the metre of the verse and the arrangement of the instrumentation divorced from the blues idiom which has come to seem his late career prison – it becomes impossible to perceive the dwindling of Modern Times. When, on that record, Dylan sang that his cruel weapons had been put on the shelf, he came close to splitting his staff and casting his books into the sea – yet, perversely, Tempest sees him wielding them as he hasn’t in years. The vaudeville mugging of “Love and Theft” gone, this is as raw an album as Dylan has released in 15 years. On the remarkable ‘Tin Angel’, a song about a murderous menage a trois, Dylan recalls his own ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and even ‘Oxford Town’, but, improbably, outdoes both in scope and swagger. If this album is a valediction, it is uniquely audacious – and rather more than a little cruel.

Tempest is home to important songs – as well as ‘Long and Wasted Years’ and ‘Tin Angel’, ‘Early Roman Kings’ and ‘Scarlet Town’ share the necessary intensity – and it has performances which better many previously lauded as late-career bests (the vocals on ‘Tempest’ in particular are as wry and alive to nuance as anything on the admittedly lyrically sharper ‘Highlands’, a critic’s favourite from Time Out Mind of similar duration). Importantly, though, this is a record of unity as well as one of delicious moments – differentiating it sharply from its immediate predecessor, Together Through Life, which now takes on the appearance of a jeu d’esprit. There are murders and subsumations, soldiers and wounds; there are also, repeatedly, women of ill repute: in ‘Tin Angel’, a jilted husband threatens violence on his former wife, whom he describes as a “greedy-lipped wench”; in ‘Scarlet Town’ we spy a “flat-chested junkie whore”; and on the compelling ‘Pay In Blood’ (“I pay in blood, but not my own”), we’re told, “You got the same eyes that your mother does / If only you could prove who your father was”. The purpose of these repeated aspersions – unusual in Dylan’s oeuvre – appears to be to emphasise the degradation of the songs’ men – the narrator of ‘Pay in Blood’ is presented as spiritually bankrupt, whilst in both ‘Tin Angel’ and ‘Scarlet Town’ we are introduced to men whose attenuated lives have hollowed them out (the betrayed “boss” of ‘Tin Angel’ sits in “a deserted mansion and [on] a desolate throne”.)

All this is of a piece with the essential pessimism of Dylan’s recent albums – the apocalyptic language of ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’, or the bleak determinism of ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ – but worked here to a fever-pitch of almost symbolist songwriting (“All the early roman kings / In the early early morn / Coming down the mountain / Distributing the corn”). The over-riding mood of Tempest is indeed one of annihilation – of the passengers of the Titanic, of John Lennon, of put-upon women or preeningly impotent men – but, unlike the grim resignation of Time Out of Mind, which dwelt on a dwindling, introspective sort of death (“it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there), there’s a sort of senescent celebration of all threats external, as if life, for all its ugliness, is, indeed, the only thing that keeps us going – a time bomb in each of our hearts.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan said: “I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn’t have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do.” In this context – and with lines such as “I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises, I need to tell someone” (‘Soon After Midnight’) – Tempest is less a farewell and more a benediction, something more akin to a prayer: a clear-sighted, forgiving catalogue of the earthly sin we all know Dylan, too, will sooner than we like leave behind. Nina Goss gets it right when she says of the record, “life and death are working their way up and down all around us”. If, by accident or by design, Tempest is Dylan’s final album, it will be seen as an imperfect one – not every line scans, not every song leaps – but, nevertheless, both generous and … well. Alive.

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

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