In a photo on the inside liner of his thirty-fifth album Tempest, Bob Dylan stands in the middle of his decidedly-roguish looking band, assuming the body language and facial expression of a musician knowing he’s produced something memorable and daring those about to listen to think otherwise.
It is not a sign of lessened expectations or fanboy rationalization to pronounce Tempest one of the high points of Bob Dylan's fifty-year recording career. In terms of style, content and attitude, it should suggest, in no uncertain terms, why Dylan's had such a cultural impact for half a century: the cinematic storytelling alone in "Tin Angel,’ for instance, is his best narrative since "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” from Blood on the Tracks, another artistic watershed that arrived seemingly out of nowhere.
Yet this title song too is of comparable weight. In its hypnotic recounting of the tragedy of the Titanic, a near-fourteen minute track seems half that length, echoing nothing so much as "Desolation Row" except that the violin here is, in turns doleful and cheery, in keeping with the tongue-in cheek imagery and name-checking: is Dylan referring to the ‘Leo’ DiCaprio of the movie or another one of the litany of characters out of a dream sequence that is less a literal lesson in history, than an emphatic reminder history repeats itself.
"So much for tears…so much for those long wasted years..." Bob sings at one point here, suggesting a brighter frame of mind than his usually dour tone (and facial expression) conveys. Yet the salty relish in his voice matches the nifty nuance in the playing of prodigal guitarist Charlie Sexton, while the rhythm section of long-time bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Receli pumps hard and steady. The impact of the audio quality, here and throughout Tempest, is impossible to miss, thanks to the expert engineering of Scott Litt, who made so many R.E.M. albums sound like the group was right in the room: he performs the same service here for Dylan as the latter again produces under the alias of ‘Jack Frost.’
The main attraction, if not the most profound meaning of this album, however, may be that Dylan gives his band a workout on tracks like "Narrow Way." Equally important, the motion of the band as they play such tracks shares a sly bounce with the leader's singing, all of which reminds of 1965 romps like "Tombstone Blues” from Highway 61 Revisited. So, biblical references and allusions to apocalypse aside, while it's tempting to read more into "Duquesne Whistle" than the slight material will allow, it's better to just enjoy this opener for what it is, one of those jump tunes that Dylan loves to use to put his excellent band through its paces.
Bob may have appropriated directly from Muddy Waters on Modern Times, but his borrowing from the blues buddah here for "Early Roman Kings” is more in line with folk tradition as he makes something substantial of his source (Mannish Boy"), wielding cinematic lyrics like a scythe, attacking the apathy of our times. There’s also the implicit suggestion the blues predates the Mississippi delta all the way back to the coliseums.
Part of the fun of following Bob Dylan, and taking into account his on-again off-again attitude toward recording over the years, is wondering if there's more than meets the ears on cuts like this. However, during "Roll On John," there is little doubt about his songwriting intent as he draws the clearest of connections to the late Beatle Lennon, an individual with whom Bob Dylan could commiserate as a true kindred spirit. An ever-so-rare window into Dylan's soul and psyche, there’s little chance the author will be excoriated for quoting William Blake (“…tiger tiger burning bright...") because that poetic image sets up the shiny chime of an electric guitar which, coming at the end of this cut, could not be a more fitting benediction to the British iconoclast.
Fifteen years ago, Bob Dylan garnered a deserved groundswell of acclaim for himself with the artistic and commercial recognition accorded Time Out of Mind. As much as that 1997 album represented a creative epiphany for Bob Dylan, it's nothing compared to Tempest where he draws so artfully and effectively, not just on his roots, but his own storied history.