A$AP Rocky performs at the Hollywood Palladium, October 26, 2012. Photo by Robert Gauthier. LongLiveA$AP begins with brooding storm clouds, and ends with Florence Welch chanting you off into the night. Here’s what you get in between: 16 tracks, 17 guest features, over 20 producers, all working for 1 center piece; Rakim Mayers. Read more...
Download These Now:Tin Angel, Tempest, Soon After Midnight
A couple of weeks ago, I headed back to my hometown of Youngstown, OH. I didn’t go to visit family or do my laundry, but to attend a concert put on by the man I consider to be the most influential artist in the history of music. That man is Bob Dylan, and that concert was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. There I was, in the very first row, watching the genius himself play songs that have literally shaped music. However, with this awe came a bit of worry. As the world eagerly awaited the release of his 35th studio album, Tempest, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would live up to the hype. Dylan’s never had the voice of an angel, but at this point it’s nothing more than gravely growl. His last album, 2009’s Together Through Life, was a disappointing effort by Dylan standards. And his latest single, “Duquesne Whistle”, felt like it could have came straight off that record. But as any fan of Dylan knows, you can never count the man out. So yesterday, along with just about everyone in the world that takes music seriously, I downloaded Tempest and braced myself for whatever I was about to hear.
Seventy minutes later, I took my headphones off and sat in silence for a moment. A mixture of emotions were whirling through my mind. I was fascinated, happy, angry, sad, confused, and surprised. Here’s this 71 year-old man, croaking out 70 minutes of poetry over western-tinged music, and it’s the best album of the year. How can he do this? How can this man write songs that can stir up such an emotional reaction? I really don’t have an answer. No one but Dylan himself knows, and that’s what makes him the greatest living practitioner of his craft.
The rollicking album opener, “Duquesne Whistle” is by no means a bad song. It’s a fun little track full of train imagery, which has been a staple of Dylan’s music for a long time. What makes the song intriguing is it’s lyrics. Take the opening lyrics for example :
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’,
Blowin’ like it’s gonna sweep my world away
Not two minutes into the album, we know we’re in for a dark affair. As the song continues, the lyrics get even more eerie. The song seems to be Dylan, in his old age, embracing his death. He knows he may not have much more left, but he’s ok with that. This is a theme that shows up more on Tempest than anything else. My favorite part of this song though, is the final lyrics before the jazzy guitar outro. They prove that Dylan is not scared of death but actually seems to welcome it, which is more than most of us can say about the subject.
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowin’,
Blowin’ like she’s blowin’ right on time
“Soon After Midnight” follows, and in my opinion is one of the strongest tracks on the record. Dylan sings with conviction, in a strong register that makes us forget about his age. His band sounds as tight as ever (as they do through the duration of Tempest), and the lyrics are nothing short of beautiful. This song serves as a nice break from an otherwise dark and ominous album.
The genius of Dylan lies in his ability to tell a story in his music. I mean story in every sense of the word, at times I wonder why he chose to be a singer instead of an author. He shows off this ability better than ever with the last three songs on Tempest. The first and best of these is the nine-minute “Tin Angel”. It’s a murder-suicide ballad that tells the ill-fated story of the Boss, his Wife, and Henry Lee, “chief of the clan”. Dylan uses his wordplay and incredible storytelling ability to weave together an astounding and frightening tale of love gone wrong in the old South, over a bass-driven beat perfect for a song of this nature. Artists simply don’t write songs like this one anymore, that both sound good and tell such a fascinating story. That’s why this track gets my vote for song of the year.
The song could’ve been the closing track on the album and I would’ve been beyond satisfied. But, ever the overachiever, Dylan doesn’t stop there. Instead, he hits us with the 14-minute title track. “Tempest” (which rakes in my vote for second best song of the year), is Dylan’s version of what happened the night the Titanic went down. 45 verses, no course or bridge, just Dylan and an irish-waltz tune for him to sing his story over. The song is powerful, stirring, and makes you feel as though you are right there in the middle of the ship just waiting to inevitably plunge into the ocean below. It’s filled with many different characters, even a reference to Leonardo DiCaprio and a very subtle allusion to Rose DeWitt. Each verse tells of a different character and how they handle the situation, my favorite coming late in the song:
Jim Dandy smiled,
He had never learned to swim
Saw the little crippled child
And gave his seat to him
He saw the starlight shining,
Streaming from the East
Death was on the rampage,
But his heart was now at peace
The song contains one recurring character, The Watchman, the man who was fast asleep and oblivious to the iceberg that he was supposed to be watching for. In every verse he’s mentioned in he “lays there dreaming”, while the chaos ensues all around him. The song doesn’t feel like a song, more like a movie. As a matter of fact, the whole album has a bit of a cinematic feel. Almost as if as much care and effort was put into the writing and production of it as would be put into that of a great film.
The albums closing track is truly something special. “Roll on John” is a heartfelt, moving tribute from one legend to another. John Lennon was a personal friend of Dylan, and I’m sure he would be proud of the piece his buddy put together for him. Dylan plays around with Beatles lyrics, and to hear him sing them is awesome. Tracks mentioned include “A Day in the Life” and “Come Together”. Any music fan will fall in love with this song after the first listen.
This album is not to be taken lightly. Don’t put it on as background music, don’t put it on while you’re doing homework or hanging out with friends (I don’t know why you’d want to anyway). This album deserves to be given full attention, and it needs it to be understood and appreciated just like all of Dylan’s work. Remember also while you’re listening that Dylan is a storyteller first and a musician second. His voice isn’t the easiest on the ears, but these word’s aren’t meant to be sung in a beautiful voice. Dylan’s torn-up vocal cords treat the lyrics well. The same way a western film wouldn’t work if it was set in Paris, these lyrics wouldn’t work sung by anyone other than Bob Dylan.
There has been speculation that this will be Dylan’s last album. Of course, that speculation has come with just about every album Dylan has released in the past ten years. But, those albums never felt like adequate closers to Dylan’s legendary career. Tempest absolutely does. And while Dylan diehards may not like the idea of his career coming to it’s inevitable close, we can take solace knowing that if it is indeed his last album ever, Bob Dylan went out with a bang.