Dylan displays fighting spirit on ‘Tempest’

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On his 35th and latest studio record “Tempest,” Bob Dylan speaks to his listeners as a man who is nearing the end of his career and vowing to go out fighting. Over the course of the 10-song, one-hour self produced album, released Sept. 11, Dylan’s raspy sage-like voice ranges in character from cowboy rebel to compassionate lover.

Recorded with his touring band, the album has a familiar musical sound similar to his last two albums “Modern Times” and “Together Through Life.” Dylan plays piano and guitar on the album in addition to singing; his voice sounds like an old catcher’s mitt would, if leather could sing.

The cryptic song “Duquesne Whistle” uses imagery that could be interpreted many ways; this is a familiar technique on this album. This isn’t the first time Dylan has used a train metaphor and this song has quickly become a favorite of mine.

“Can't you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing? Blowing like the sky's gonna blow apart.” The lyrics are only further complicated by the previously released, Charlie Chaplin-like video in which our helpless 20-something hero is smitten by a young lady while the song serves as accompaniment.

The scene quickly turns violent and a lost scene from “Reservoir Dogs” ensues while the Dylan character is similar to a cameo appearance.  

The steel guitar of Donnie Herron and violin of David Hidalgo are great complements on swinging bluegrass tunes like “Narrow Way,” the up-tempo song about a weathered countryman who has known desire and despair as a lover and a fighter. Times are tough, but in “Narrow Way” he will keep riding on.

“This is hard country to stay alive in
blades are everywhere and they're breaking my skin
I'm armed to the hilt and I'm struggling hard
you won't get out of here unscarred
it's a long road, it's a long and narrow way
if I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday”
“Narrow Road,” Bob Dylan - “Tempest”

Searching for the autobiographical meaning in Dylan’s lyrics can be a pitfall for listeners.  But, on “Long and Wasted Years,” Dylan speaks about someone (maybe himself) who has endured crying over torn souls while walking on a cold morn’ but he tells us there is no time for wasted tears.

There is beauty in Dylan’s vision of the world; there is also a lot of Old Testament-style killing. By the time Dylan gets to “Pay in Blood,” the fifth song on the record, his pistol is drawn and he is taking aim.

The chorus repeats, simply, “I’ll pay in blood, but not my own.”

It is not only the words that make an impact but the vengeful tone that Dylan takes on the song. It is a far cry from “Blowin’ in the Wind.” I absolutely love the grit through which Dylan gives what may very well be his last confession. There is little illusion as to the sorrow and strength it takes to keep moving in this world and Dylan reminds us not to waste time and get right down to brass tacks.

On the first listen, I felt that on some songs, Dylan’s voice got in the way of putting his lyrics in context. On subsequent listens I realized how honest and authentic he sounds on every song. This album will probably not resonate with novices to Dylan’s body of work; even for veteran fans this album can be challenging. But that does not mean it is without reward.

Part of becoming an almost mythical figure in American music means that your commentary becomes part of the national record. Dylan knows this.

His damnation of politicians, bankers and cheaters has never been more clear or frightening. I would peek through my fingers to witness the type of havoc Dylan would impart on a swindler if given a chance. I can hear a wry smile come across his face while he brings to life, through song, the fate of his enemies.

Dylan pulls the shroud off the greed-soaked and lawless environment that bred the fiendish child of credit default swaps on  “Early Roman Kings.” He takes the shuckers to task saying he’s going to shake them down on trial in a Sicilian court.

The last three songs on the album are full of treachery, catastrophe and elegy.

“Tin Angel,” is a strange tale involving a double murder and suicide between a husband, wife and Henry Lee, the “chief of the clan.”

The album takes its title from the 14-minute opus on the sinking of the Titanic. If it were a movie – it would be a period piece. Dylan and his band are the orchestra playing songs of fate and love on the deck while the ship sinks.

He even references the 1997 James Cameron movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the lyric “Leo took his sketchbook.” The song uses imagery of the universe swallowing the ship while angels dance on the deck and the watchman dreams of the boat sinking.

Completing the album’s theme of a last goodbye - Dylan weaves a personal song to John Lennon on “Roll on John.”

“Shine your light/ move it on/ you burn so bright/ roll on John.”

If this is the last hurrah of Bob Dylan, it is a fitting close to his 50-year career. But at 71 years old, Dylan shows no signs of slowing down.

On Monday, Nov. 19, his “Never Ending Tour” Dylan will come to the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia featuring Dire Straights guitarist Mark Knopfler. Tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. Friday, Sept. 14 and I already have mine. Dylan has been heard playing a grand piano on this tour and it sound like it shouldn’t be missed. I’ll see you there.

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Spotify required to listen to the album below.

Check out last week's blog on Bob Dylan's extensive contribution to American music. 

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