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First Impression: Bob Dylan's 'Tempest'

August 01, 2012|By Randy Lewis
  • Bob Dylan performs at the 2011 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles.
Bob Dylan performs at the 2011 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Bob Dylan’s new album “Tempest,” slated for Sept. 11 release, appears on first listening to extend his artistic streak that began with the rejuvenation he demonstrated on 1997’s “Time Out of Mind” and has continued with “Love and Theft” (2001), “Modern Times” (2006) and “Together Through Life” (2009).

A small handful of music writers got a preview this week at the Beverly Hills office of Dylan’s label, Columbia Records, and though an in-depth review will be coming later, we’re sharing some first impressions on Pop & Hiss.

The 10-track album, self-produced under Dylan’s nom de production Jack Frost, continues with the hard, rootsy musical grooves that have dominated his work over the last 15 years. He’s supported in the studio by members of the band with which he tours relentlessly, with a bit of accordion and fiddle help on a couple of tracks from Los Lobos founding member David Hidalgo.

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Dylan’s eye is ever on the world around him, and the issues personal, social and political he perceives.

“Tempest” opens with “Duquesne Whistle,” on which the folky sound of old-time country blues guitar licks quietly unfurl before the full band explodes into a driving big-beat rhythm as rollicking as the train ride the song explores. It also signals perhaps a greater focus on musical arrangements than Dylan fans have been accustomed to, with melodic flourishes and sharp rhythmic breaks accompanying his metaphor-heavy lyrics in a song that sounds apocalyptic and hopeful at once.

There’s an ominous and mysterious tone to “Scarlet Town,” which adds another batch of colorfully named characters to the roster of Dylan song habitues: Uncle Tom, Uncle Bill, Sweet William, Mistress Mary and Little Boy Blue turn up on the streets of Scarlet Town.

The majority of attention soon to be focused on “Tempest” is likely to hone in on the three closing tracks: the nine-minute “Tin Angel,” a remarkably straightforward ballad of romantic betrayal and retribution; the devastating title track, a 14-minute epic that relates the history of the Titanic with greater power than James Cameron’s overstuffed film; and “Roll On, John,” a 7 1/2-minute benediction directed at John Lennon, invoking several snippets of lyrics from the late Beatle’s songs.

But like so many of Dylan’s greatest songs, even at the expansive length taken by these three tracks, they aren’t remotely limited to a single subject or interpretation.

“Tempest,” couched as an old country waltz, finds Dylan (as he also does in “Tin Angel”) almost entirely avoiding the oblique imagery and playful metaphor on which he built his reputation as rock’s greatest songwriter, instead keeping his lyrics firmly planted on the ground -- or, in this case, in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic in 1912. 

Yet every one of the song’s 45 verses still packs a punch. Here's one sample:

Mothers and their daughters

Descending down the stairs

Jumped into the icy waters

Love and pity sent their prayers

Clearly there’s much, much more to be said about the latest from rock’s poet laureate. Stay tuned.

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