Over the past 15 years, Bob Dylan has leaned heavily on a single compositional formula: seaming together disparate pieces of pre-rock n’ roll music into a fresh, albeit hodgepodge musical tapestry, over which he sings increasingly dark poetry about the last stages of the life cycle. Tempest is no exception to this, and like its conceptual brethren, success or failure is determined by how deeply Dylan reaches into his well of early 20th century music, and how vivid the images are in his stories.
As for the latter concern, Tempest is full of them. The vaudeville-styled album opener “Duquesne Whistle” is the tale of a travel weathered coot who hears all his journeys in the sound of the train whistle. It’s a lonesome tune, but placed against the backdrop of the rest of Tempest sounds downright blissful. From that point on, Dylan sings of all manner of untimely death. The rollicking, Rolling Stones tinged “Pay In Blood” finds Dylan filled with the vigilante spirit. He taunts, “I put you in a chain that you never break. Legs and arms and body and bone. I pay in blood, but not my own,” as he places the crosshairs squarely on the child abandoning fathers, corrupt politicians, and crooked gamblers.
Things only become grimmer with the slow burning blues of “Tin Angel,” a three way murder-suicide tale. This is directly followed by the title track, a 14 minute, “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” styled death march retelling of the Titanic disaster. As we’ve come to expect from Dylan, truth is weaved into fiction so as to underscore the parts of the tragedy most interesting to him. Dylan runs through several individual tales – mostly fiction – of their last moments on earth, where rich and poor found themselves dying in the same icy waters when the “unsinkable” ship went down. Close inspection of the song’s characters reveals how closely they mirror the storyteller himself, such as the almost literal description of Dylan’s songwriting process, “Leo took his sketchbook, he was often so inclined. He closed his eyes and painted the scenery in his mind.” Graver still is the closer “Roll On John,” a dramatic memorial for the late-Beatle. In Lennon, Dylan saw a true contemporary, not because of their shared songwriting gifts, but because they both walked the same landmined path of fame and deification. When Dylan sings “I heard the news today, oh boy,” he’s not merely quoting “A Day In The Life,” he’s reliving his own discovery of Lennon’s 1980 assassination. The song serves as the setting sun on an album full of flames going dark, a theme all the more poignant to the now 71-year-old Dylan.
There are few missteps on Tempest, but the ones present are glaring. “Early Roman Kings” serves no purpose as it’s hard to imagine anyone listening to Dylan hasn’t already heard every incarnation of Bo Diddley’s “I’m A Man” they’ll ever need to hear. “Soon After Midnight” features a splendid, melody reminiscent of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” but Dylan didn’t bring the goods lyrically. The largest issue, however, is the track sequence. Nearly half of Tempest’s run time is contained in the final three songs, and while all three are fantastic compositions individually, it can be a chore to listen to them back to back to back. Better spacing of those opuses would have greatly served the album.
With an artist with as vast an oeuvre as Dylan, the temptation is to grade a new album against only his own work. While at this stage of his career a new Dylan release may only be heard by longtime listeners, it must be judged against all music. Even by such lofty standards, Tempest succeeds enormously, placing it not only in the upper half of Dylan’s catalog, but also with the better submissions of 2012.