If you ever managed to listen to Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour, you’d know it’s full of Bill Monroe, Anita O’Day, Amos Milburn, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, Buddy Holly and countless other incredible, pioneering artists. If you heard his radio playlist, you might
note a few things about Bob’s 35th studio album release, Tempest. The beautifully played blues, rockabilly, folk and country on Tempest indicates still Bob’s ability to listen to a song (as he claimed in No Direction Home “once…maybe twice”) and to keep it on his mind. His incredible capability of preserving a song or guitar method on his brain for years, even decades, ready to recall and to filter down to his finger picking, to the steel slide covering a finger on his left hand, or even to his pen at any time. His recollection is palpable throughout his new album Tempest, especially on Duquesne Whistle, and Early Roman Kings. It is a talent that no one else has demonstrated so well since he began, it is and always has been what makes Bob Dylan an outstanding genius, it’s still clear even on his 35th studio album. It is also what prompted Johnny Cash to write about Bob: “there are those who do not imitate, who cannot imitate, but then there are those who emulate at times, to expand further the light of an original glow.”
Duquesne Whistle begins with a beautiful slide guitar melody, lulling you into cheery optimism. The opening scenes in the accompanying music video show scenes of a quaintly busy New York, people bustling around the city: it fits perfectly with the opening 43 seconds of Tempest. The guitar glides and sweeps gracefully like the wheels of a steam train, before it breaks into a foot-tapping rockabilly drum beat. Bob’s voice croons and grizzles so charmingly, singing cheekily of his new beau, “you’re smiling through the fence at me, just like you’ve always smiled before” and: “I wake up every morning with this woman in my bed, everybody tells me she’s gone to my head”. He’s still got his romantic charm, even at 71.
The storytelling Bob Dylan crafts on Tempest is enough to stop you dead and compel you not to breathe too hard, to concentrate fully and hear every word and beat as it plays. In the title track, Tempest, which follows rather roughly the tragedy of the Titanic, Bob constructs characters from vast dimensions of culture and time, with Leo (DeCaprio), Smokestack, Wellington, Davey the Brothel Keeper. He paints a vivid picture of the sinking: “he saw every kind of sorrow, heard voices everywhere, alarm bells were ringing to hold back the swelling tide”, telling the story gracefully of each character he imagines.
It is plainly silly that writers have called this album one of his best, because to say so would put Tempest in the leagues of the best albums ever written. It is however, a very exciting and inspiring listen; lyrically hilarious and equally as dark. I like to think that the seventh track on Tempest – Early Roman Kings – hits back at the contemporary villains (like bankers) through Bob’s characteristically cutting humour, but perhaps this might be overly political for Bob. Regardless, Tempest is an excellent album which I’ll treasure on my shelves for life.