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.
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.
Maybe the best thing of all about 'Duquesne', though, is that it rhymes with “train.” Are critics going to get how rich and eloquent and patterned the rhyming on this record is? I hope so. Dylan is among the best rhymers in the English language since Yeats, who was the best since Byron, who was the best since Pope, who was the best since Shakespeare. And I mean that.
'Soon After Midnight' is when some people’s days begin, true. Here, in the second song, it seems to be a whole brothelful of folks. We’re on Rue Morgue Avenue redux, but this place isn’t as terrifying and life-threatening at all; the setting of 'Soon After Midnight' is pretty mellow, really, and romantic, as such things go. The rhymes make you grin – of course Charlotte the harlot is going to be dressed in scarlet, while “Mary’s in green / I’ve got myself a date with the Faerie Queene” (at least that’s how I’m spelling it, the way Spenser did). This is honky-tonkin’ nostalgia, in the end, and Dylan’s current band has been playing Western-saloon, cowboy-band style long enough now to make it sound like late night in a border town as the words come full circle to the end. The ladies may treat him kindly, but where the singer really wants to be, ma’am, is with you.
'Narrow Way' shook me up a little – dark and gritty and one of which I can’t remember many specific details, because they were wiped away by the ensuing standout song 'Long And Wasted Years'. I remember a general biblical/messianic feel (not exactly unfamiliar, if you’ve always listened to Dylan). But 'Long and Wasted Years' is a punch in the jaw, a shove against the wall, from start to end. The scene here is of a guy in bed with a woman who’s talking in her sleep, saying things she shouldn’t, things for which one day she might end up in jail. There are zinger couplets, patterned internal rhymes here, a trail of linguistic breadcrumbs to a rocking gritty beat that lead from one harsh remarkable image to another. The song’s title being withheld until the end, and then drawn out in the last line in Dylan’s intense, bitingly enunciated voice, is genius.
'Pay in Blood' is also a great song. The Dylan move of someone’s gonna pay, but it ain’t gonna be me, is an old one. He’s slippery, and gets out of the fixes he gets himself into in his songs…most of the time. “Arms and legs, body & bone / I’ll pay in blood, but not my own.” It’s got a taunting, judging tone to it that fits the words perfectly into the tune.
'Scarlet Town' was one of my very favorites. My mother’s family are farmers from western North Carolina, who came there from Scotland (where my many-times-great grandmother was bonnie Annie Laurie) in the 1760s. My grandmother sang me to sleep when I was a child with 'Barbara Allen', her favorite ballad, and it’s always been mine. Not exactly an uplifter, but what ballad is? One of the great evenings of my life was hearing Dylan singing 'Barbara Allen' in the summer of 1988 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Well, I think if Grandma had sung me to sleep with 'Scarlet Town', I’d have been a tad more unsettled than 'Barbara Allen' probably had already made me in my dreams. The tune is gorgeous, and the song sung sweetly and softly, every word crystal clear, enunciated and carefully pronounced. You won’t need a lyric sheet for this record. (I don’t understand people who complain they can’t tell what Dylan’s saying/singing: he’s very precise these days.) Like many of the songs on Tempest, 'Scarlet Town’s' got an archaic feel – and not just because its roots are in an old ballad’s roses and briars. Scarlet Town, where I was born, with its golden leaves and silver thorn, could have come from a Yeats poem of the 1890s. The town itself is far from perfect, with its marble slabs and graveyards and deaths – but, the singer reminds you repeatedly, still you regret leaving it, and you know you’ll come back there some day.
'Early Roman Kings' is a rhyming romp – lecherous and treacherous, peddlers and meddlers. I was laughing through it, and wincing sometimes, too, at the hard images. The Muddy Waters riff that drives 'Mannish Boy', that Muddy in turn got from a hundred older bluesmen, pulls the words along in a river. It’s sort of a voodoo song, with all the kings like Baron Samedis. They’re not in togas or on coins, but in their sharkskin suits, in their top hats and tails, nailed in their coffins (so they can’t get out, presumably, though beware, they DO). All the centuries are jumbled together like tossed cards. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the way human history goes down, and always will. When the singer starts cautioning you, near the end, that he’s going to start acting like an early Roman king, you’d better stay on your toes. Or, better yet, head for the hills.
'Tin Angel' is another ballad, of which there are, happily, several on this record. Nobody does ballads like Dylan, said Liam Clancy the last time he was in New York – high praise, coming from Clancy. (Then Clancy did his Dylan impression, and very affectionately, too). One of the earliest poetic forms in English, the ballad’s also one of the most enduring and popular. People purely love a song that tells a good story – and, as Richard Thompson likes to say in concert, we especially love ballads when everyone dies in the end, except for whoever the writer/singer of the song is. 'Tin Angel' is Scotland meets Mexico, a borderline Dylan loves: the bonnie bonnie banks of the Rio Grande. There’s a weird love triangle, here, among a woman and two men. I couldn’t quite tell who the woman’s married to, but then maybe neither can she. Both men claim to be at some point, or she calls them at some point, husband. But the plot of 'Tin Angel' is 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsy', or 'Gypsy Davy', with a dash of 'Lord Darnell' thrown in. (It’s also rather Romeo and Juliet. Whenever a woman pulls out a knife and kills herself with it, between two dead lovers, I have to think of poor Juliet. There are several lines in the songs of Tempest that are straight out of Shakespeare). As in 'Early Roman Kings' the diction’s high and low, archaic words and phrasings mixed in with modernspeak.
And why not? We have such a rich language in English – use it all. Dylan’s brilliant to do so. Words don’t go away; we just keep making up more of them, and there’s such a wealth of ones that have fallen out of use. Bring ‘em back. Here, people lower themselves on golden chains, and crumple at the waist like twisted pins. This guy with whom the woman’s run off isn’t so raggle-taggle – she’s not sleeping rough on a riverbank wrapped in a horsehide, but naked in bed in a nice warm room, clinking glasses in front of the fire, when we enter the scene for her last moments. One man shoots the other, who crawls across the floor, dying; she then kills the killer – and herself. It feels fated, like a good ballad: she’s not mourning the dead lover, but quitting (in the sense of quitclaim) the “husband” she’s just stabbed – sort of a self-executed eye for an eye. That they all end up in a heap together, thrown in a hole, seems appropriate.
In all these middle songs, taken together, I remember feeling dangers all around by the end of them. There are harsh phrases (politicians full of piss, bastards, and, somewhere, a “flat-chested junkie whore”) that put you on guard and that really make you listen, and think. Having yourself primed that way, while also irrevocably tapping your toes and rocking to the tunes, is an excellent way to be as you come to realize that the next song is the one about Titanic.
'Tempest' is a flood, less a matter of a particular ship sinking than the waters constantly rising, and rising. From the set-up for this nearly quarter-hour song (the scene of a woman in a saloon, getting ready to sing the song about the Great Ship), with its rolling, flowing 1-2-3 waltz ripple-beat, to the fade-out of its conclusion, 'Tempest' is a mesmerizing ballad. It feels like someone’s dangling a watch in front of your face, swinging it back and forth as what’s going to happen inexorably comes to pass. You know the history of Titanic, you know the stories made of it from novels to recent movies, and you can’t stop it, you just have to sit there and respect it. As you listen, you bear witness. The ship’s watchman is a perfect recurring figure to keep you company, watching along with you (he reminds me of the fez-wearing desk clerk in 'Black Diamond Bay', a cataclysmic ballad also). The watchman’s a fine character for a refrain, seen dozing while dancers circle; seen later as the ship begins to go down; and seen wanting, finally, to send a message to someone when it’s far too late. The images are powerful: the dark cold sky full of stars; John Jacob Astor kissing his darling wife; even Leo and his sketchpad. Leo appears again, with Cleo this time, later in the song. He, and she, will make Dylanologists run amok linking Di Caprio and Cleopatra, I expect: two people famous for being in boats. After all, Cleo has that barge, in which she makes her triumphal entrance for Antony in one of the most famous, doomed, spectacular scenes in all of Shakespeare. What people won’t concentrate on is what’s simplest and happiest for a song: the fact that Leo and Cleo rhyme. The use of the movie Titanic is good, and smart – it shows an awareness, without judging the fact, that Leo’s movie is what Titanic means to most people today. Like me, Dylan’s remembered that stunning scene of the drowned woman in her long gown, floating in the risen waters above the elaborate staircase as if she’s dancing; he refers to it powerfully. Certain lines, like the one about petals falling from the vases of fresh flowers in a first-class area, are particularly lyric. As I listened to this song, though, I thought about Noah and Katrina as much as I did about Titanic. Maybe more. To call it epic isn’t too strong.
After the flood, there’s only one more song to listen to. 'Roll On John' will be the most talked-about track on Tempest, and with good reason. There’s so much going on in it, and it’s truly beautiful. In a first listening I’ve gotten so little of it, but am still very moved by it. The simple, clean refrain, intimated in the title, is reminiscent of the refrain of John Lennon’s own 'Instant Karma'. The use of other Beatles lines, and above all those from William Blake, are magical tributes. 'Roll On John' is an elegy. When you write an elegy paying tribute to one who has died, you use forms and models and all the elegies that have come before. When Milton wrote an elegy for his drowned friend Edward King, he used Greek models and translated lines from odes. When Shelley wrote 'Adonais' for Keats, he used Milton; when Yeats elegized Robert Gregory, he used Shelley; when Auden elegized Yeats, he used Yeats.
The title of this song is taken from an old folk tune Dylan recorded 50 years ago, a song of abandoned love and sunsets and what’s lonesome. The plaint of the refrain of that old tune is that John rolls on so slow. What breaks the heart, here, is the fact that John Lennon shone brightly for such a short time on this earth. Only months older than Dylan, Lennon was just 40 when he was killed. The images in this song go through Lennon’s musical life as a young man, from the Liverpool docks to the Hamburg streets, to the Quarrymen in the cellar – but there are also powerful images of silencing and captivity, things John never, ever put up with. A stanza about slave ships sailing the Atlantic, focusing on a man’s mouth clamped shut, is stunning, as is the companion verse about a modern-day move – both from England to America, and beyond. Lennon has bags to unpack, but he hasn’t, yet; the singer gently reassures him, and us, that “the sooner you leave, the sooner you’ll be back.” This line makes of England, and Manhattan, islands from which Lennon’s gone, and oh, does it make us want him back. The possibilities of life in America are fraught with old-style Western ambush, Indian attack, being shot in the back: painful listening, as you remember that morning in December when most of us heard of Lennon’s death. The final stanza is a gorgeous surprise, tying together the song’s refrain of Lennon’s having burned so bright in a perfect circle of the personal and the poetic:
"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
Pray the Lord my soul to keep
In the forests of the night
Cover him over and let him sleep."
If anyone has a “problem” with the last verse of 'Roll On John' being composed largely of lines from William Blake’s 'The Tyger' and from the prayer most children in John Lennon’s England, and Bob Dylan’s America, used to say every night – if anyone wants to claim this isn’t “original” – they’re pretty shallow uncomprehending types without any sense of the grace of literary history and individual composition. They’re also not listening with their hearts. Bob Dylan is the best proponent, and champion, of tradition and the individual talent writing and singing songs today. That last line before the concluding refrain, “Cover him over and let him sleep,” is so gently and lovingly delivered that it doesn’t need a single word to come past it – and so I end this first listen to a remarkable new record here.
Tempest will be released in Ireland on September 7.
© Hot Press and Anne Margaret Daniel, 2012.
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