'Duquesne Whistle' instead, and at odds it will shortly transpire with much we go on to encounter, joyfully evokes the jubilee train of gospel legend, bound for glory; a salvation express full of hopeful halelujahs, its destination somewhere better than here, this sickly place and its trampled sadness, unceasing strife and grief everywhere you look. In ways some distance removed from the things waiting on the rest of the album, Duquesne Whistle is passably carefree, possibly even best described as rambunctious.
It begins fabulously, with a jazzy instrumental preface, reminiscent of 'Nashville Skyline Rag', guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball briskly exchanging Charlie Christian licks. It's like turning on the radio and tuning into the past, nostalgically evocative of a more sunlit innocent time. There is too the impression that we have joined the album, somehow, after it's already started and eerily like this music has been playing on a disk that never stops spinning. Then the whole group blows in, the magnificent road band that's backed Dylan, most of them anyway, on everything he's recorded since 'Love and Theft', and so includes Modern Times, Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart.
They are ablaze here and on fire throughout, and at their jitterbugging point of entry. 'Duquesne Whistle' takes on an unstoppable momentum that may remind you of, say, 'Highway 61 Revisited' or 'Tombstone Blues' (I was also fleetingly reminded of Cat Power's swinging version of 'Stuck inside of
When Dylan convened with his band at Jackson Browne's Groove Masters Studio on Santa Monica, he's said it was his intention to make a 'religious ' album, though he wasn't specific about quite what he meant by this and whether there was any connection between the record he had in mind and his so-called Born Again albums, that trio of disks including Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love that 30 years ago shocked and confounded his audience, when they were also alarmed by the vengeful sermonising that punctuated his concerts of the time. There are perhaps inklings, though, of the album Dylan originally envisioned on, for instance, the devotionally inclined 'Long and Wasted Years', and the gospel influenced 'Pay in Blood', which follows. The testing of belief in extreme circumstances is a recurring theme.
Long and Wasted Years finds Dylan almost talking his way through the song, in the manner of 'Three Angels' from New Morning, over a slightly churchy organ and a lovely bluesy guitar refrain. 'I think that when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned', Dylan recites at one point, the charred landscape that so much of Tempest occupies coming into full focus, a forlorn sort of place, populated by the displaced and the lost, to who Dylan gives poignant voice. 'I ain't seen my family in 20 years', he reflects wearily in one of the verses 'They may be dead by now. I lost track of them after they lost their land'. The bereft hopelessness that is evident in many instances on the album is particularly well articulated here, especially in the song's chastening final image: 'We cried on a cold and frosty morn.' Dylan mourns, and there's no other word for it. 'We cried because our souls were torn/So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years'.
Pay in Blood opens with guitars, piano and a little Tex-Mex swagger over a vaguely menacing chord sequence reminiscent of those great declamatory Warren Zevon songs that Dylan so admires, like 'Lawyers, Guns and Money', 'Boom Boom Mancini' (which Dylan covered in concert several times as a tribute when Zevon died in 2003). There's a hint, too, in the arrangement, of the song's gospel roots, and something of the Stones in Sexton's admirable guitar riff. It's a song in part about the futile notion of suffering being in any way ennobling. 'How I made it back home, nobody knows/Or how I survived so many blows/I've been through hell, what good did it do?' Dylan asks, a bitter question, asked perhaps of God, since he then adds 'You bastard, I'm supposed to respect you? I'll give you justice'. The singer's anger is anger palpably rising, and he is prone to reject communal solace for a life apart, lonely and slightly terrified. 'This is how I spend my days/I take my fear and sleep alone' Dylan sings, following it with the chilling pay-off line, several times repeated 'I pay in blood, but not my own'.
‘Soon After Midnight', meanwhile, sounds at first like a touching, funny country love song, gently crooned, with the languid melody lope of
'Early Roman Kings' is equally livid, an accusatory tirade, again directed at the same people Dylan has pretty much railed against since he first put plectrum to guitar string and started having his say about things. The 'kings' of the song are vividly seen in 'their sharkskin suits, bow-ties and buttons and high top boots' as shyster bankers, corrupt money men who have bankrupted nations, impoverished millions. As Dylan put it, 'The meddlers and peddlers, they buy and they sell/They destroyed your city, they'll destroy you as well'. What Dylan feels about them is akin to the savage hate expressed on 'Masters of War', say 'I could strip you of life, strip you of breath/Ship you down to the house of death' he sings with hostile contempt, nothing particularly equivocal about his point this point of view, which is in a word merciless.
'Tim Angel' sounds similarly as if it could have been lifted wholesale from an anthology of traditional folk songs, where hundreds of such tales must lurk. It's a revenge ballad, nine minutes long, with no chorus, banjo and fiddle again to the fore. The setting is vague. References in one of the latter verses to a helmet and a cross-handed sword suggest a chivalric age. But soon after that, there's a gunfight, the kind of point-black shootout set-piece you used to find in Walter Hill movies, which suggests Dylan at one point may have had a Western setting in mind, perhaps inspired by a recent tour bus viewing of something like 'Duel in the Sun', a torrid oater starring Dylan favourite Gregory Peck. What happens, anyway, is that someone called 'The Boss', which is not a name you probably come across too often in the Child Ballads, one day comes home from wherever to find his wife has gone missing. Whither the Missus? Has she simply left him, or been abducted? Boss upon investigation is tipped off by a faithful retainer that the errant spouse has in fact made off with one Henry Lee, leader of an unidentified clan. Boss orders his men to horse and off they gallop in hot pursuit, his men deserting him along the way. Dogged Boss continues alone. After presumably much travail, Boss tracks down Henry Lee and his wife, bursts in on their amorous coupling and after declaring his love for his wife starts blasting away. Henry Lee's the better shot and soon Boss is dying in his own blood. The missus takes this surprisingly badly and stabs Henry Lee before plunging a dagger into her own heart. The final image of the three of them tossed into a single grave 'forever to sleep' is chillingly unforgettable.
And so to the title track: 45 verses over 14 minutes about the sinking of the Titanic, inspired by Dylan's musing on the Carter Family's 'The Titanic', but at times as much in debt to James Cameron's blockbuster movie (whose leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, is name-checked twice). The piece starts with what sounds like a string quartet, after which brief overture the song settles into a long unwinding waltz, progressing with stately resolution, verse following verse, like a latter-day 'Desolation Row'. The song vividly describes the panic and confusion as the great ship flounders, a metaphor for the folly of over-reaching ambition; mankind again brought low by God's intervention. The scale of the disaster is enormous, contains 'every kind of sorrow'. Dylan dramatically capturing the dark panic of the moment-the blown hatches, the water pouring everywhere, the ship's smokestack crashing down, humbler passengers trapped below decks-and as in the film, certain characters are given their own scenes, each verse then a gripping vignette. There's for instance someone called
We must address, I suppose, in closing, the similarity of this album's title to Shakespeare's The Tempest, widely regarded as his last play, and the idea that follows is that this record is likewise some farewell, a summation of sorts, a final rallying of waning creative energies, perhaps the closing act in Dylan's storied career. The idea of Bob as a kind of riverboat prospero is hugely appealing, and he remains, supremely, a story-telling sorcerer, but Dylan has already dismissed the /comparison as simply wrong-headed and therefore pointless. And for all its evident pre-occupation with death and the end of things, Tempest is in many respects the most far-reaching, provocative and transfixing album of Dylan's later career. Nothing about it suggests a swansong, adios or fond adieu.
'I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings' he sings on 'Early Roman Kings', and how loud and bright and strong that clarion toll yet sounds.