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“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.

bob dylan

Bob Dylan’s Modern Times

Every step of the way, we walk the line
Your days are numbered, so are mine
Time is puling up, we struggle and we stray
We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape (Bob Dylan, ‘Mississippi’)

When Levon Helm died last month, he was 71. Bob Dylan enters his own 72nd year today.

Particularly in light of his recent purple patch – though “Love and Theft”, the superlative late album on which ‘Mississippi’ appears, was released more than ten years ago now, its sequels have consistently risen above Dylan’s blackest moments – it’s easy to take Dylan for granted. The fact that he is still with us, still producing music, still – impossibly – relevant is a function of good fortune. That it is still possible to attend, as I have, one of the gem-like concerts that sparkle from what can be a desperately uneven Never-Ending Tour, is not far short of a marvel.

Quite apart from the war of attrition fought by history against careless rock musicians, in 1997 we very nearly lost him. The newspapers were full at the time of rumours that Dylan was suffering from a rare heart condition – the appearance on Time Out Of Mind later that year of a song entitled ‘Not Dark Yet’ added grist to the mill. In part, and despite Dylan’s comment upon leaving hospital that he had been sure he was about to meet Elvis, this orgy of obituary-anticipation was a symptom of the wider culture’s uncertainty about what to do with Dylan any longer. Prior to Time Out Of Mind, he had seemed to be in a rut. “We don’t know what to make of artists who have the audacity to outlive their own revolutions,” wrote Gerri Hirshey in Rolling Stone that year.

What we have done with Dylan since then – since his creative rebirth which nevertheless refigures American standards rather than creating them new – is establish him as a sort of mythical figure, a quasi-legendary elder statesman. From the reverence of Scorcese’s No Direction Home to the mutliple hagiographies of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, we have cast him as a sort of immovable figure, a circus-master presiding enigmatically over America’s zenith and decline (“My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf,” he sings on ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ from Modern Times, a song which remains one of the slyest responses to the 2008 crash recorded anywhere).

Dylan, on the other hand, seems to have moved from the defiance of ‘Not Dark Yet’ to a contented resignation that he, too, will pass. “Love and Theft” was recorded only a few months after the death of his mother, and when on ‘Mississippi’ he sings, “But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free / I’ve got nothing but affection for those who sail with me,” the words come as a kind of benediction. Dylan knows what we sometimes seem to forget – his still-hereness, and certainly his productivity, is unlikely and exhaustible. He is about to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and a birthday festival is taking place today and tomorrow; these will do for now as signs we are yet to take for granted the captain of our ship. Long may he sail.

bob dylan

Happy Birthday, Bob

Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass / but sometimes you just find yourself over the line

Why does it matter than Bob Dylan is 70 today?

I rode her down to Danville town, got stuck on a Danville girl,
Bet your life she was a pearl, she wore that Danville curl.
She wore her hat on the back of her head like high tone people all do,
Very next train come down that track, I bid that gal adieu.

Danville Girl, Woody Guthrie

Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain
You know I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart
The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train

Bob Dylan, Brownsville Girl

‘Brownsville Girl’, easily Dylan’s best song of the 1980s (with the possible exception of some of the tracks on Oh Mercy [1989]), was originally entitled ‘New Danville Girl’, and was inexplicably removeD from Empire Burlesque (1985), only finally to see the light of day – with its new title and marginally tweaked lyrics – on the next year’s Knocked Out Loaded. Neither album offers much in the way of diversion, but ‘Brownsville Girl’ lights up its album, a song which Bono has said ‘transformed songwriting’. I’m not sure about that, but it is undoubtedly a magnificent piece of writing. A collaboration with Sam Shephard, presumably hailing in part from the days when he was a member of Dylan’s ragtaggle Rolling Thunder Revue (Sean Wilentz is good on Shephard’s involvement in this enterprise in Bob Dylan in America, but sadly doesn’t mention this later collaboration).

‘Brownsville Girl’ is a more complex song than a mere answer to an old folk ditty – as should be said even of Dylan’s earliest and most obvious homages. But the appearance of that girl – that capturing, enrapturing girl arriving and departing on a rolling train – is deliberate, all about memory and distance and sense of place, wrapped up in nostalgia and unreachability. ‘Brownsville Girl’ isn’t even about the Brownsville girl – that destructive locomotive has already barrelled on through, leaving a hole the unattainable (or high tone) girl who does feature in the song struggles to fill (“Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul”); the stars have been tore down in Dylan’s riposte, and yet somehow – with all that detail and wordplay and humour – the fractured world he has inherited is indubitably more complex, more intelligent, even more humane, than Guthrie’s. The world of the Western, through which Gregory Peck passes in the movie Dylan returns to repeatedly in ‘Brownsville Girl’, never really existed, like the romantic dustbowl of Guthrie’s oeuvre; but they are the kind of powerful folk symbols Dylan has always used to animate deeper truths.

So happy birthday, Zimmy. And if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now

bob dylan

Christmas In Michael Gray’s Heart

It's A Christmas Classic, Yo

Those who pay attention to the sidebars will notice Bob Dylan’s Christmas In The Heart firmly ensconced in the December playlist. When I took this with us to Whinfell Forest earlier in the month, Anna took some convincing – isn’t his voice totally cracked? But after a few listens she began to appreciate its warmth, if not Bobby’s wizened pipes. A similar conversion has gone on over at Michael Gray’s blog – entirely cynical about Dylan’s late output, Gray welcomed news of Christmas In The Heart with a sourness so pronounced that, when he learned all the album’s proceeds were being devoted to chairty, he threatened giving up Dylan blogging for a while in penance. Yet upon a listen or two, even Gray can’t deny the album’s strange allure:

Everything people have written about its authenticity of spirit, its clear sincerity, seems exactly right. And though this sincerity means, for the 68-year-old Bob Dylan, harking back to the musical heralds of the 1940s-50s, a blog comment contributor was right to say that there is no big orchestra, no florid choir, no grandiosity.

Belatedly, here’s to Christmas miracles.

bob dylan

Although It’s Been Said Many Times, Many Ways…

Santa Bobby ...

Santa Bobby ...

Christmas means the ritual indulgence of two groups, the young and the old. Little Johnny gets all the presents his heart could desire (for at the very least the two hours before his attention span snaps); Great Uncle Monty gets to talk at some length about the Christmases of his own boyhood, and how much better they were. He may also get to listen to some of ‘his’ music, warbling along to a seasonal Perry Como if his voice is up to it, or just putting Frank Sinatra on the stereo, nodding along with a nostalgia few others in the room share.

Christmas In The Heart, the admittedly bizarre 47th studio album from Bob Dylan, has a little of the Uncle Monty about it. The arrangements, expertly played by Dylan’s seasoned band (even David Hidalgo returns from the Together Through Life sessions), are syrupy in that Golden Age way – this is a selection of songs heavily influenced by the tracks Dylan plays on his own Theme Time Radio Hour, suffused with the ghosts of Christmases past. There’s a schmaltzy backing choir of ‘mixed singers’; sleigh and tubular bells; and the sort of tracklisting which pays no heed to any song written later than 1950. This is an old-style crooner’s album, pure and simple.

Bob Dylan, of course, is no crooner – and it is his voice which, of course, represents the fly in the ointment. This is no po-faced exercise in pure nostalgia; anyone who dislikes Dylan’s voice will not be won over by this record, but in part this is because of the strange shapes it is pushed into by Dylan. He is not happy to grumble, a la Uncle Monty, through the festive hits of his youth. On ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ (no, really), he pronounces ‘Herald’ ‘Hearald’ – a typical bit of Dylan fun; on ‘Winter Wonderland’, one of the most joyous little cuts you will hear all year, Dylan’s cracked voice is forced to swagger and swing (“He’ll say are-you-married, we’ll say … NO, man!!”);  ‘Have Your Self A Merry Little Christmas’ is as comforting as a crackling log fire, yet Dylan’s knowing, raddled delivery makes it something like a paen to lost friends, to be met again in some other, unknown Christmas.

Let’s not claim too much for Christmas In The Heart: it’s a novelty record, and all the artist’s royalties go to the charity Crisis (this is reason enough to buy it). But what a lovely novelty record it is. Just listen to ‘Must Be Santa’, ‘The Christmas Blues’ or ‘Christmas Island’, let yourself laugh with Dylan that it is the man who brought us ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Brownsville Girl’ singing “Who laughs this way – Ho, ho, ho” (for surely this is part of the fun!), and listen to those subtle cues that everyone involved knows exactly what they’re doing – and are having a whale of a time doing it – and it’s impossible not to feel festive, even in mid-October. The traditional material – ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ – are fairly poor, but they are in the minority, surrounded by bluesier and swingier fare.

Admittedly, enjoying the company of those for whom you have the fondest feelings is part of Christmas; others won’t be charmed by Uncle Monty, just, as always, annoyed. It’s a shared history, perhaps, which allows you to forgive him his festive inadequacies – even find pleasure in them. Still, there has been debate (and some red faces) even in the Dylan fan community about the wisdom of this particular venture. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that this Uncle Monty would be indulged, by me or any of the others who sail with him: but Christmas In The Heart, though nostalgic and warm in the way one might expect from our current Dylan, who so revels in early recording music, is no messy accident. It’s just good fun. This old fella will be welcome to warble on my December 25th.

bob dylan

Bob Dylan: Hiding In Plain Sight

In The Shadows...

In the shadows...

In the TLS, Wesley Stace picks up on all that stuff about Dylan’s skill at hide and seek:

With an eye on posterity, he has become more productive in diversity: the first volume of his autobiography (Chronicles, 2004), a book of drawings (Drawn Blank, 1994), an exhibition of paintings (The Drawn Blank Series, 2007 – the same drawings coloured in), a Broadway musical (The Times They Are A-Changin’, 2006), a lengthy stint as a DJ (Theme Time Radio Hour, 100 episodes and counting), and a readiness to pursue more obvious commercial opportunities, which has led to associations with Cadillac, Victoria’s Secret and the Co-Op. His song “Things Have Changed” from the film Wonder Boys (1999) won him the Oscar that he displays on his guitar amp at every concert – an average of about 100 shows a year for the past twenty-one years. He is hardly the hermit of old, who managed one full concert between 1966 and 1974, yet still somehow an enigma, hiding in plain sight.

One of the functions of all that productivity, of course, is an ever-widening sense of what it is Dylan does. Yes, he of course remains primarily a songwriter – but how many other things, too? And with what tone, what emphasis? The traditional ‘era-ising’ of Dylan’s career – folkie, protest singer, rocker, Woodstock hippie etc. – has always been a simplification, but it contributed to a sense that he couldn’t be nailed down. Now he fills many roles even in the same superficial period. He’s one minute the chuckling granddad on the wireless and then the great American man of letters. Then he releases a Christmas album for charity. No, really.

Fittingly, much of Stace’s piece is a take-down of Clinton Heylin’s recent Revolution In The Air, which I’ve been flicking through since I got it months back and which I would charitably describe as tendentious. The book seeks to catalogue each and every one of Dylan’s songs (up to 1973) in order of composition, and with in-depth notes about exactly what was influencing Dylan at the time. As Stace puts it, “A by-product of this rationalism is that almost nothing is allowed to happen in Bob Dylan’s imagination.” This need to attach tags to everything Dylan has produced, as if his work is something to be parcelled up into its constituent elements, annoys others, too. The interplay – between references and original lines, influence and imagination, role and reality – is the thing. It’s the gaps between them in which Dylan still hides away – and with luck always will.