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Bob Dylan's Near Perfect Storm

The master songwriter's new record is called Tempest – and it includes both a tribute to John Lennon and an epic chantey on the sinking of the Titanic. A world exclusive preview by Anne Margaret Daniel.

Anne Margaret Daniel, 17 Aug 2012

Breathtaking, mythmaking, heartbreaking, the songs and ballads of Bob Dylan's Tempest are composed of intricately patterned rhyme and sound. No other songwriter can marry words and music as richly as Dylan can, and the perfect-ten tracks of this record come straight to us from a bard's ear and a poet's pen.

First, the sound. It’s odd for me that the richness of the melodies, and the expertise of the musicians, headed by Dylan and David Hidalgo, are what I think of first. I teach words, and I love them. It’s strange that I can’t remember more couplets; the whole record resounds with rhyming couplets, and internal rhymes and alliteration too. I was dazzled by great, snappy, unexpected rhymes – bitter tragic rhymes – elegant baroque rhymes – and yet can remember comparatively few.

I think that’s because I was concentrating on the tunes, and the way the words fit into the music so well. It’s always a little game I play with myself when I read for the first time a new poem by someone like Seamus Heaney, who has such a great command of ending and internal rhyme: what’s he gonna rhyme with that? Like Heaney, Dylan’s always headed for the unexpected (one blistering example here: God/firing squad), unless it’s a sentimental song (and then you are indeed going to get moon and June and soon, love and above in the rhymes, though with the unexpected in terms of what happens in the song’s story).

However, because Tempest just plain sounds so good, I have much less of a sense of the lyrics than I normally would. The way Dylan uses words, the command he has over them, and the number of them he knows and deploys to immense effect are all among the things I love most about Dylan.

The sound of this record proves to anyone who’s bitched about Dylan’s music recently that Jack Frost is one hell of a producer. David Hidalgo (whose name got misspelled “Hildago” on Together Through Life – proofreaders please take note) adds so much – it’s like having the quality of a horn section in just one man. The accordion/box standing in for a harmonica faked me out more than once. Hidalgo helps conjure up a Desolation-Rowish feeling on some of the tracks – just the way Charlie McCoy’s guitar could. And Donnie Herron’s fiddle is subtle but bright, to smile over when you catch a glimpse of it from song to song.

The first track, 'Duquesne Whistle', is perfect for the start. What journey doesn’t begin with the whistle of a leaving train? America has such a thing for trains – we strangely think of them as very American, even though in the modern day they’re better run in just about any European country. I think it’s a touch of the Wild West – a landscape Dylan likes to live in, imaginatively, and one that’s so essentially American – with the train as the only way to get to town, the lifeline to “civilization” and Back East.

And there are more good train songs than there are for any other travel genre. Sure, there are some good car songs. Not so much airplane songs. Then you can go back for all the old sea chanteys, most of which I’d bet Dylan knows, but ships these days are too archaic a mode of travel – or a romantic and privileged one. (More about sea chanteys and ballads later; the title track is one). 'Duquesne' is one of those names that are fun as heck to say, if you know how to pronounce it – a town that seems to be lost in the middle of nowhere, but that hooks up to anywhere by train. Even if, as Dylan has it, it’s via Gary, Indiana, where once upon a time The Music Man lived. But which Duquesne is it, anyway? They’re all over the American map – including one in Arizona that’s a ghost town now. (It cracked me up to see that a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania paper has already run an article saying Bob Dylan has a new song about the Duquesne Steel Works and Andrew Carnegie.) The whole sense of the song made me feel like Jay Gatsby, back from the war on that eastbound train, leaving Louisville: “But it was all going by too fast for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and best, forever.” Yet this first song’s not all looking back, and tristesse. As I listened to some of the more genial lines linking the train to women, and the idea of the singer’s baby being on board, I thought of radiant Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane in 'Some Like it Hot', singing 'Runnin’ Wild' in the aisles of a southbound train somewhere in the Midwest. I loved the invocation of the “lights of my native land,” and was pleasantly surprised when the train-whistle voice, feminized already, echoes the “mother of our lord.” The ending challenge in Dylan’s light, resonant voice as to whether or not you’ll “know me the next time I come ‘round” is for us all – and yes sir, we’ll know you.

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