Bob Dylan in concert in Spain, 2010, CC-by-2.0
Fifty years after his first album, Bob Dylan, 71, has released Tempest, his 35th studio album, to critical acclaim. Over half a century, Dylan has never repeated himself.
Randal Roberts of The LA Times says, “Dylan lives in every molecule of our being, has taught us about lyrical possibility, has reveled in the joy of words and the power and glory of making things up from scratch. To learn that a new Dylan project is in the works is to know that there’s a good chance your brain will be forever changed by at least one new rhyming couplet, snarling oath or graceful guitar line. On “Tempest,”…there are many such moments.”
The songs range from light to dark, from blues to ballad, from topical references to phrases borrowed from Child ballads, all resonating to Dylan’s unique and raspy voice.
“Scarlet Town,” echoes the “Barbara Allen,” where Sweet William on his deathbed lies, but veers away from easy interpretation, much like the inviting but ultimately opaque American folklore references in Dylan’s much earlier, John Wesley Harding, 1967. Then and now, the poetry is Dylan’s own:
Scarlet Town, in the hot noon hours,
There’s palm-leaf shadows and scattered flowers
Beggars crouching at the gate
Help comes, but it comes too late
By marble slabs and in fields of stone
You make your humble wishes known
I touched the garment, but the hem was torn
In Scarlet Town, where I was born
The title song, “Tempest,” is a 14 minute ballad about Titanic, phrased as a waltz that echoes the rolling of waves as it borrows The Carter Family’s “Titanic.”
The night was black with starlight
The seas were sharp and clear
Moving through the shadows
The promised hour was near
Lights were holding steady
Gliding over the foam
All the lords and ladies
Heading for their eternal home
Tempest opens with a blues number, “Duquesne Whistle,” written with Robert Hunter, The Grateful Dead lyricist. It’s followed by the angry and topical “Early Roman Kings.” There is “Roll on John,” a tribute to John Lennon, “Tin Angel,” a song of murder and suicide, and it ends with “Soon After Midnight,” which sounds like a slow song at the end of a high school dance.
If you’ve ever enjoyed Dylan’s music; if like Randal Roberts it has “forever changed your brain,” I urge you to check out the songs online. I bet you’ll download some or all of cuts, and marvel at the phenomenon of an artist who has continued to grow over fifty years.