The title track of Bob Dylan’s remarkable, 35th studio album delves
into the sinking of the Titanic with
the innovatively poetic songwriting style developed by Dylan in the ’60s and
brought into the 21st century like an iceberg hitting the empty hull of pop
Each of Tempest’s 10 songs is constructed from oral tradition American folk music. From a thematic perspective, Tempest is the most originally compelling, haunting and subterranean album Dylan has recorded. And it is entirely self-aware. Ending with a song about the murder of John Lennon (“Roll On, John”), working through disaster (“Tempest”) with literary form and dealing with murder/suicide (“Tin Angel”), Tempest is a raging force with which to reckon. The very nature of evil itself (“Pay in Blood”) is tempestuously central.
Listening to this masterpiece is shocking, yes, but an education, too, keeping us alert to history and the human condition. “Scarlet Town” (referencing 19th-century poet John Greenleaf Whittier) and “Narrow Way” (borrowing from a 1930s recording by the Mississippi Sheiks) are as powerful as Dylan gets: We are in the present, but the archetypal past is a hellhound on our trail.
The title song, clocking close to 14 minutes, defines this truly great album. Using the persona of a watchman sleeping “at 45 degrees” to create an eye for the story, we are suddenly seeing the movie of the disaster: “Leo took his sketchbook/he was often so inclined.” Referring to the star of the Titanic movie by first name triggers a fitful distance to the historical event from which a listener cannot recover. “They battened down the hatches/but the hatches wouldn’t hold.” We hear the story but cannot do so without drowning in it.