Sunday, September 30, 2012

Down on the Killin' Floors: Bob Dylan's "Tempest"

 "These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell."
                                                                                  - interview with Mikal Gilmore
                                                                                     Rolling Stone, Sept. 27th, 2012

        "I'm tryin' to love my neighbor and do unto others, But, oh mother, things ain't goin' well", Bob Dylan intones on "Ain't Talkin'", the last song on 2006's Modern Times. It's a float through some deserted landscape, and Dylan seems resolute to shun humanity and all it's wickedness, and just. keep. walkin'. Yet, later in the song, he says, almost whispers "If I catch my opponents ever sleepin', I'll just slaughter them where they lie".
         Dylan's been in renaissance-mode since 1997's Time Out of Mind, a stark meditation on love, regret, and mortality seemingly made by a man at his wits end with the rat race of life. On 2001's Love and Theft he began producing himself and employing in the studio his live band well versed in Western swing, Dixieland jazz, and rockabilly. He introduced a lyrical thread filled with wicked fire-and-brimstone judgement against wrong-doers and sneering kiss-offs to former lovers that felt both caustic and comedic.  How about "I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more, I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war" or "I'm preachin' the word of God, I'm puttin' out your eyes!"?
        Things still ain't going well on Dylan's new album ,Tempest, an absolute stunner of a record that feels like the proper follow up to Modern Times. ( 2009's Together Through Life seemed weak and out-of-place, but in retrospect, a stop-gap detour). The same themes are present, but Dylan really ups the intensity. His voice is as ragged and damaged as ever. "Duquesne Whistle" begins the record innocently, maybe the sweetest thing on here, but, after that, things get brutal really quick. "This is hard country to stay alive in, Blades are everywhere, and they're breakin' my skin, I'm armed to the hilt, and I'm strugglin' hard, You won't get out of here, unscarred" he belts out on "Narrow Way", over a white-hot, honky tonk rhythm. Time seems skewed in the modern Dylan universe; Biblical worlds bump up against the present. He's a judge and the judged in an impending apocalypse, a hangman and the hanged in the post-apocalypse. Those threats keep coming! Over the standard-stop-start blues beat (think "Hoochie Coochie Man") of "Early Roman Kings", Dylan spits "I can strip you of life, strip you of breath, Ship you down to the house of death". "Pay in Blood" contains more savagery per line than any Dylan song ever, too many to mention. At his most bile-throated yet, he practically barks the recurring line "I pay in blood, but not my own". Even the mellow waltz of "Soon After Midnight" hides treachery:"Two-timing slim, who's ever heard of him, I'll drag his corpse through the mud". On "Long and Wasted Years", the most Dylan can muster is smug admonishment to a woman of his past. The way he belts out "Oh baby, you just might have to go to jail someday" makes me chuckle.
        There are two wild cards on Tempest. The last track, "Roll On John", about the slain former Beatle might seem out of place. But it's a nice respite from the blood-spilling that preceeds the record, a possible lament to or plea for a purity that was lost. The title track is a 14 minute, 40-odd verse rumination on the sinking of the Titanic. Critics have made such a big deal about the fact that it's not historically accurate. Fact, fiction, myths, even movie characters all fall into the sea. It's basically Dylan's version of a traditional tragedy song. It is grueling, and indulgent, yet not unlistenable.
       So, what does all of this mean? Sure, the violence is probably the most noticeable and jarring thing on the record, but it's shrouded in what seems like revolution. There's a brilliant thinly-veiled topical line in "Early Roman Kings: "I was up on black mountain, the day Detroit fell, they killed 'em all off, and they sent 'em to hell, Ding dong daddy, You're comin up short, Gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court; and "Pay in Blood": "I'll give you justice, I'll fatten your purse, Show me the moral that you reversed". Yet, I don't think this is a protest record, nor do I think it's a religious record, although both themes are prevalent. I've never been one to over-analyze Dylan. I'm ok with it being simply about not taking shit from anyone! .I still can't help but wonder if some of it is playfully directed at his detractors. There's very few artists that have caused as much public/critical scrutiny and hostility. Perhaps, after 50 years, Dylan is finally getting his vengeance. A "pen is mightier than the sword" sort-of thing, maybe? But it's done with humor, even if it's pitch black.
       . Dylan has made yet another uncompromising  masterpiece! At 71 years of age, the man refuses to become a nostalgia act. Let's cherish that! ****1/2


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