From the opening moments of Bob Dylan's new self-produced album Tempest - of which I had my first and single listen to yesterday - the spine shivers. All the questions Dylan fans might have - What will we hear? Can he still sing? Will he deliver? - are immediately rendered irrelevant as one becomes transfixed by these initial tracks. Yes, he can still carry a melody. Yes, his road band, plus Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, can rock, can lilt, can augment a lyric like few others. Yes, Dylan delivers. Set for release in the UK on September 10 (September 11 in the US), here's what we heard.
It starts like some Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys' 1930s Western Swing thing, like an old song emanating from ancient radio ether, reminding us of Dylan's love for the roots of American music. But after a verse, it hits ramming speed, kicking into a ferocious romping rocker propelled by Tony Garnier's walking bass. The conceit belongs to that grand tradition of long gone train line songs (think City Of New Orleans), representing older, more soulful values that get lost when progress mows down everything in its path. "Listen to that Duquesne whistle blow/Sounds like it's on a final run." A helluva an opener.
Soon After Midnight
At first one thinks this slow strut is a simple nocturne, a night owl's paean. But as the narrator moves through the moonlight, his multiple women become "harlots" and meet horrific ends. Bob The Ripper? As usual, nothing is revealed, only inferred. Wicked - even evil - delight.
A jump blues 'bout wimmin troubles. The put-down artist who sang "You're an idiot, babe/It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe," now scorns his lady with a withering "Even death has washed its hands of you." Best couplet: "I'm still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest/I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts."
Long and Wasted Years
A gorgeous ballad in which the protagonist apologises to his love for hurting her feelings. He admits he wears shades to hide his eyes because "There are secrets in them that I can't disguise" and in one line explains decades of Dylan photos.
Pay In Blood
A swaggering, threatening, don't-fuck-with-me and the second Tempest song where Bob plays the fiend. "Legs and arms and body and bone/I pay in blood but not my own."
We're in Masked and Anonymous territory here, Twenty-Worst Century amorality, where "the end is near," with "the evil and the good living side-by-side" and where "all human forms seem glorified." Perhaps he's referring to the Internet. A loping finger-pointer with a nice slow banjo plucked by Donnie Herron.
Early Roman Kings
The only Tempest tune that's been officially YouTubed. As he's done in disparate songs from Bob Dylan's 115th Dream to Isis, the author erases boundaries between historical and mythical epochs and collapses time into Bobworld. Is this about Romulus? If so, he's wearing a sharkskin suit and there's talk of "ding dong daddies" and "Sicilian courts," all set to a Mannish Boy musical template.
Full of betrayal and more pierced hearts, this is where Tempest sets up the first of the 1-2-3 punch of epic songs that close out the album. Ultra-violent, Shakespearean imagery in a description of a doomed love triangle that literally goes up in flames. To quote another rock poet, no one here gets out alive.
The almost-14 minute title track about the sinking of the Titanic. The lords and ladies within initially dance before ending up as floating corpses. There's a character named Leo with a sketchbook, echoing the Hollywood version as well as history's. Some folks "slaughter" each other over lifeboat space, others perform great acts of heroism - a microcosm of humanity. And a mysterious character called "The Watchman" repeatedly dreams of the disaster and tries to save the victims. Is he on or off the ship? Is he contemporaneous or does he exist now? We're not told, adding to the surreal nightmare.
Roll On John
And in the end, pretty much a blow-by-blow account of the murder of Dylan's friendJohn Lennon. Bob imagines the physical experience of dying that John endured in his final moments, down to "breathing his last." Terribly sad, terribly moving, and appropriate for all of us who consider Dylan and Lennon the titans of rock 'n' roll artistry - once two very stoned young pals in the back of a limo having too much fun. "You burned so bright/Roll on John."
Tempest is astonishing. It's obviously no coincidence that its eternal themes of loss, catastrophe, and murder and the saving graces of love, courage and friendship are strikingly familiar in this Little Century Of Horrors. Dylan's command of language is unequaled, while the recurring musical motifs are part of our DNA - simultaneously timeless and fresh. But his crowning achievement as an artist is his unparalleled empathy, his ability to inhabit his characters, understand their motivations and make them flesh and blood through song. No one gets inside the human heart like Bob does.
50 years after the release of his first album, Dylan remains our foremost storyteller. Thanks Bob.