Sound: Just a few short months ago, Dylan was presented with the highest honor granted to citizens by the U.S. Government, the Metal of Freedom. Dylan isn't new to being honored, as he has also been recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and has received almost a dozen Grammy awards, amongst numerous other awards from different organizations. You can't question the fact that Bob Dylan has had wide ranging influence on multiple musical genres over the years, and even American culture in general. "Tempest" is Bob Dylan's 35th studio album release, in addition he has released 13 live albums, 9 albums in the "Bootleg Series", and has also appeared on 14 compilation albums. "Tempest" has 10 tracks, each original songs not previously released, with a runtime at right around 70 minutes. Almost 14 minutes of the album are taken up by the title track, "Tempest", which is about the wreck of the Titanic which seems to be being used as a metaphor for current affairs. As other points of interest on the album, the track "Early Roman Kings" which is musically a play with the vamp from Muddy Waters' song "Mannish Boy". The song "Roll On John" is about John Lennon, and one of the most nostalgic songs on the album.
The instrumentation of the album ranges from fairly sparse to very lush, with some songs full of textures from many instruments and others as minimalistic as possible to get across the musical idea. There is a lot of musical 'borrowing' going on, with songs being variations of previous Dylan songs, or songs by other artists, some with significant alterations and others such as "Early Roman Kings" being very obviously a vamp of "Mannish Boy". The musical tradition that Dylan is a part of, American Folk, has long been known to borrow from other songs both lyrically and musically. While my first instinct is to think that he is just copying other musicians or his own earlier work in some cases, in reality this has always been a part of the blues and folk traditions. Bob Dylan has done a great job with surrounding himself with amazing musicians, which provide the perfect support to his songwriting. It probably took me until the 2nd or 3rd track to really be pulled into the album, but by the time I got to that point I was won over. On subsequent listens I've enjoyed each song more than the last time. My one complaint where is the harmonica? Dylan was the musician who convinced me that the harmonica is a real instrument and not just a novelty. // 9
Lyrics: Bob Dylan's voice has always been a little odd. Nobody is going to call him a great vocalist, but over time his voice has become more and more ragged. At some point his voice went past the point of being 'shot out' or 'shredded' and has gone into the realm of being ideal for an aging folk rock icon. It isn't a pretty voice, and it can't be called pleasant, but it is absolutely expressive and just drips with character. I have had an issue with a lot of Dylan's last several releases not being able to reconcile his current voice to the voice from his early career (even then it wasn't a pretty voice, and was indeed very weird even from the beginning), but as of the release of this album either I've grown accustomed to his voice or his voice has progressed so far into the realm of vocal degradation that it sounds good to me in an elder archetype of folk and americana kind of way. Regardless, people don't listen to Bob Dylan for his voice, they listen for his lyrics and on "Tempest" they are still extremely poignant, though much darker than anything released by Bob Dylan in the past.
Dylan is carrying on the folk tradition of using songs as storytelling put to music on much of the album. A good example of this is on the song "Tin Angel" which is about a love triangle gone bad and has a bloody Shakespearean ending. Before I go into the lyrics, as an interesting aside, Joni Mitchell released a song called "Tin Angel" on her album "Clouds" in 1969, and then in 2010 during an interview she claimed that Bob Dylan was a plagiarist and a fake I can't help but wonder if borrowing her song title is a purposeful statement by Dylan. Some of the lyrics from "Tin Angel" follow, but please any mistakes as I'm trying to type this as I listen and my make some mistakes: "It was late last night when the boss came home/ to a deserted mansion and a desolate throne/ servant said boss the lady is gone/ She left this morning just 'fore dawn/ ye got something to tell me, tell it to me man/ come to the point straight as you can/ ole henry lee, chief of the clan, come riding through the woods and took her by the hand/ the boss he laid back flat on his bed/ he cursed the heap and clutched his head/ he pined at the future of his fate/ to wait another day would be far too late/ go fetch me my coat and my tie/ and the cheapest labor that money can buy/ saddle me up my bucksin pair / if you see me go by put up a prayer/ well he rode all night and he rode all day/ eastward lord down the broad highway/ his spirit was tired and his vision was bent/ his men deserted him and on he went/ he came to a place where the light was dull/ his forehead pounding in his skull/ heavy heart was wracked with pain/ insomnia raging in his brain/ well he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword/ he renounced his faith he denied his lord/ crawled on his belly put his ear to the wall/ one way or another put an end to it all." On an on the lyrics go with no choruses only more and more verses leading up to murders and suicide. Very much like a Shakespearean tragedy. The lyrics throughout the album continue to be entertaining, engaging and thought provoking. // 9
Overall Impression: I don't know how "Tempest" will compare down the road to albums like "The Times They Are A-Changin" and "The Basement Tapes", but I believe it is completely possible that it will be considered the greatest album of his later career. My favorite songs on the album are "Tin Angel", "Pay In Blood" and "Early Roman Kings". Every song on the album is worthwhile, but the one that grabs me the least is the opening track, "Duquesne Whistle". In my mind, this album is an instant classic. I am worried that it will not receive the credit it is due because folk rock has really fallen out of the public eye, with the music charts full of Nickelback and Nicki Minaj and such. (No disrespect to those artists they aren't my cup of tea, but we can't blame the artists for what the market is if people weren't buying it, then it wouldn't continue to dominate the charts). As a musician and struggling songwriter myself, I also have to say that this album, as well as the rest of Bob Dylan's discography, is an amazing study in songwriting. I would absolutely recommend this album to everyone. Give it a few listens to sink in and you won't regret it. // 10
- Brandon East (c) 2012