This isn’t the album Bob Dylan wanted to make.
Or at least that’s what he says.
It’s hard to follow Mr Dylan in the interviews he gives these days. In his most recent ones not only does he explore bizarre ideas, he seems to have shifted his whole terminology. In the 1980s, he talked about religion in negative terms whilst trumpeting the merits of faith (many Christians follow the preference for the “f” word reserving the “r” word for sets of beliefs of others they describe in negative critical terms because of a perceived adherence to a set of rules) . In Chronicles, the first volume of his autobiography, he talks about a period when he adopted the trappings of Jewish religious orthodoxy so that the press would lose interest in him and a preoccupation with his faith journey.
In 2009, when releasing a Christmas album he began to talk of religion in positive terms whilst commenting that it wasn’t for everyone. Now he tells us that he wanted his new album to be an album of religious songs but it proved too hard to complete and so he finished up with the album that he has called “Tempest”.
He also says in that same interview with Rolling Stone that the album he wanted to record would have been more “Nearer my God to thee” than “Slow Train coming”. Perhaps we would have had another “Saved”? He doesn’t say and wasn’t asked so we’ll never know. Anyway, Dylan is so oblique and mysterious in the rest of that interview, it is hard to know whether he wants to be taken seriously or whether he just wants to put the press off his scent again. He has more parables and riddles than Jesus and Samson put together. It is hard to know what to make of him.
The album that is not like “Slow Train Coming” does open with a train song that touches heavily on the theme of the second coming. That song is “Duquesne Whistle” and like most of the songs on the album it is loaded with biblical language and biblical pictures and the imagery of the New Testament. It is significant that it is the New Testament that Dylan draws upon most heavily. In the Rolling Stone interview he talks of the book of the Acts of the Apostles and the book of Revelation. For followers and estimators of Dylan’s current spiritual beliefs and practices the argument must now have changed. If there is quandary about Dylan’s beliefs it is not whether he is an orthodox follower of Judaism and the Torah or a believer in both Testaments and the coming of the Christ and his second coming – he clearly belongs in the second category. The question is now whether in his belief in the New Testament and the Old, he can be seen as an orthodox Jewish Christian or whether he has come to a set of beliefs that are distinct to Mr Dylan in his solitary lifestyle and ways – a kind of modern gnostic pursuing a belief that is hidden to those of us who are not playing 150 concerts a year at 71 years of age.
I commented in my review of “Together Through Life” that border-towns and borderlines were a significant image for Dylan from the mid-1980s through to that album more than 25 years later. Trains have, of course, an even longer history in Mr Dylan’s songs. Even the Slow Train goes back to 1965 and the liner notes to Highway 61 Revisited. Then there was that album “Slow Train Coming” (which seemed so controversial at the time) and many references since the obsession with the Bible really began in the late 1970s. On the Oscar winning, “Things Have Changed”, he talks of waiting on the platform for a train and the way that song relies on biblical imagery and hymnology suggests that Dylan has never uncoupled that train carriage from the image of Christ’s second coming and judgement that he began to use in 1979:
“If the Bible is true, this world will explode”
“Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose”
“I’m well dressed, waiting on the last train”
“Don’t get up gentleman, I’m just passing through”
(all 4 quotations taken from Bob Dylan’s song “Things Have Changed” © 2000, Special Rider Music)
There are numerous comparable songs in Dylan’s canon where the train is an apocalyptic vehicle for the songwriter and “Duquesne Whistle” is no exception.
However, it is also worth noting that this song links us to other more recent albums. It is the one song on this album which is co-written with Robert Hunter. On “Together Through Life” all but one of the songs were written with Hunter. This may mean that either “Duquesne Whistle” was left over from the lyrics from the period of that earlier album or just that Dylan sometimes has to in his later years rely on another lyricist to finish off the things that don’t quite work. Prior to “Together Through Life”, the most recent albums where Dylan co-wrote the majority of songs were the patchy “Knocked Out Loaded” and the “Desire” album which Dylan does not speak of in fond terms.
Musically, this song has more to do with the stylistic turns of “Love and Theft” than the “Together Through Life” album and there are melodies in the whole album which would have sounded out of place in the period between the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-fifties – at least moreso than the rock and roll era.
When Dylan played Hammersmith, London with Mark Knopfler last year as I stood and watched the show, the thing that struck me was the apocalyptic heaviness of the set and the way that the threat of judgement was emphasised by Dylan’s phrasing and rhythms in almost every song – even though there were little or none of the songs from his gospel music period played . Add to this the “eye” logo that seemed to stare at us from the stage and it was hard not to think that we were being judged and found wanting. One writer concluded that the logo is made up of symbols of the trinity – the eye representing the Father who watches over every sparrow falling, the crown above the eye representing the Son who is King of Kings and the bird-like symbol above the crown representing the Holy Spirit who comes as a dove of peace and tongues of fire. I don’t know whether any of that imagery is true or just the clever invention of a fan but this album right from the beginning is certainly weighted with the same warning of the end of the age that Dylan’s show and symbol seemed to carry that night. In the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, he suggests that “Rainy Day Women” has more to do with the Acts of the Apostles (presumably the stoning of Stephen) than drug use and the modern stoner. It seems that for Bob every album he has recorded (ancient and modern!) is redolent with Bible imagery and references, we were just mistakenly looking in a limited number of places. Maybe “Slow Train Coming” shouldn’t have been the surprise it was – or at least that is what Mr Dylan would have us believe.
The 1930s style opening to “Duquesne Whistle” leads into a lyric about the aforementioned apocalypse. The Duquesne whistle sounds like it is going “to sweep my world away” says the vocalist. To the whistle-listener who is the narrator, the whistle is blowing “like it ain’t going blow no more” and as if “the sky is going to blow apart”. In the train whistle we are to hear a pre-cursor to the end of the age that Dylan has been waiting for so long and even better “my woman is aboard”. In so many of Dylan’s recent songs it is the woman in his life who has been holding him back or seeking to lead him astray if he could not be held back. Now he has a companion for the last leg of his journey. In fact the whistle is calling with the voice of female humility that echoes “the mother of our Lord” (all lyrical references in this paragraph, Duquesne Whistle, Bob Dylan © 2012). In the New Testament, whatever the church has made of Mary in different eras, she is a model of one who puts her life at God’s service. These are the kind of travellers who are listening out for the final whistle to blow.
The second track “Soon After Midnight”, opens on a similar note of devotion as the first song had ended:
“I am searching for phrases to sing your praises”
(Soon After Midnight, Bob Dylan © 2012)
The time is now just after the middle of the night and the narrator lists the women of his town. Unlike the first song none of these sound like they are going to do him good. Dylan conjures up a town full of characters like “two-timing Slim who’s ever heard of him” and “Charlotte, a harlot, who dresses in scarlet” but the narrator’s heart is “cheerful and never fearful” as he waits for his day that has just begun to progress and reach fruition and run its course.
Track 3 has a blues rhythm and is entitled “Narrow Way”. The narrator has a long road to walk and he is struggling to work towards the one he seeks. He knows that one “will have to work down to (me) someday” if he cannot work his way all the way up. Both that idea and the title have their basis in the teaching of Jesus:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
(The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 7, v 13-14, New International translation)
I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
(The gospel of John Chapter 14 v 18, New International translation)
As in the other songs, the faithful person needs to be humble:
“I heard a voice….. saying be gentle brother, be gentle and pray”
And the end is near – “there’s a bleeding moon in the heart of town”
With so many religious and biblical motifs in these songs, it is staggering to consider what the religious album Dylan intended to produce might have sounded like.
But let’s not over-state this. The album has many themes and fictional characters who parade the streets and walk the paths and is more like the lyric writing that Dylan used on the “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” albums than “Slow Train Coming” and “Saved”. There is a much richer vein of humour here.
“I’ve got a heavy-stacked woman with a smile on her face
And she has crowned my soul with grace
I’m still hurting from an arrow
That pierced my chest
I’m going to have to take my head
And bury it between your breasts”
The “sacred” and the “profane” stand side by side. Dylan once complained that the listeners to “Shot of Love” had treated it as though it was a “Methodist record”. It would be a mistake for anyone to come to this album expecting diatribes about faith. If his audience warmed to the subtle inter-weaving of Biblical language and other ideas in “Time out of Mind” and “Modern Times” then they will find nothing off putting here. Like the Christmas album where “Christ is born in Bethlehem” and “Must be Santa” could sit comfortably side by side, Dylan here is providing something for the whole expanse of his audience.
The 4th track “Long and Wasted Years” shares style and delivery with “Brownsville Girl” from the aforementioned “Knocked Out Loaded”. It is another song that relies on train imagery:
“Two trains running side- by- side, 40 miles wide, down the eastern line”
(Long and Wasted Years, Bob Dylan © 2012)
The imagery here is sometimes clumsy and this isn’t one of the stronger or more convincing songs on the album. It is a tale of two people who travelled together for a while but are now journeying separately but in the same direction and the narrator suggests that they reunite.
“Pay in Blood” is another song that relies on Christian imagery. In Christian theology the notion is that the Christ’s death was in order to act as a substitute for those who would follow him. His blood pays the price of the sin of others and allows his followers to enter into the family of God without experiencing negative judgement on their sins. The language here is unusually caustic for Dylan:
“I am sworn to uphold
The laws of God.
You could put me up before
A firing squad”
and this again is far from being any kind of traditional gospel song but the central motif remains:
“I pay in blood but not my own”
(Bob Dylan, Pay in blood, © 2012)
Dylan uses another favourite lyrical technique when he says “I am drenched in the light that shines from the Sun (Son)”. It is unclear whether he is referring to the sun in the sky or the Son of God. The second seems to make better sense but we will have to wait for another volume of his “Lyrics” book to see whether Bob refers directly to the Son of God or whether he does so indirectly by the use of metaphor. Either way, the meaning would be the same.
Despite the bizarre lyrical twists and turns, there is still the sense of spiritual growth:
“The more I die,
The more I live”
Which is a self-conscious echo of the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans:
“but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live”
“If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord”.
(St. Paul, Letter to the Romans, New Testament, New International translation)
Track 6, Scarlet Town, is a description of a town where the narrator was born but which he knows he has to get away from to survive. In the book of Revelation, scarlet is associated with the woman and the city that will be destroyed when the city of God finally comes in all its fulness:
“The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries.”
“and cry out:
‘Woe! Woe, O great city,
dressed in fine linen, purple and scarlet,
and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls!’”
(New Testament, Book of Revelation, New International version) .
If “Time Out of Mind” was Dylan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” as I have suggested elsewhere then “Scarlet Town” is comparable to the market town in that John Bunyan book “Vanity Fair” the town which the pilgrim must escape if he is to reach the world that is to come.
Perhaps Dylan’s “Scarlet Town” would be peopled by gangs like the ones mentioned in “Early Roman Kings”, the next song which is perhaps one of the least developed on the album. Based on an old bragging blues song, it does little more than fill up time here.
“Tin Angel” is next up. A story song, it tells the tale of a man who returns from a journey only to find his woman has gone away. It opens with the line “It was late last night when the Boss came home” which is also the opening line of “Gypsy Davy” a song associated with Woody Guthrie amongst others. Perhaps in Dylan’s song, the boss is the same one he mentions in “Sweetheart Like You” where we are told “the boss has gone north for a while” which has been interpreted as a reference to Christ who has returned to his heavenly kingdom to await the end of the world. Whether that is the case or not this is far from a straight forward narrative, but we are left with the impression that in some way this is a battle for the spiritual salvation of the woman who has run away from the boss.
We are told that the woman has left with “Henry Lee” who is another character from a much earlier folk song. He instructs his servant “If you see me go by, put up a prayer” and sets off to seek her out knowing that tomorrow “would be far too late”.
But if the boss is here a Christ-like figure then the narrative is a little confusing:
“Well, he threw down his helmet and his cross-handled sword
He renounced his faith, he denied his lord”
(Bob Dylan, Tin Angel © 2012)
But he does have things to offer that only a god could give:
“I’d have given you the stars and the planets, too
But what good would these things do you?”
(Bob Dylan, Tin Angel © 2012)
Both this song and the one that follows, “Tempest” (the title track) bear similarities and comparison with Dylan’s song, “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and they have equally confusing narratives.
In “Tempest”, we learn of travellers on a ship, the Titanic, and this song is very much in the tradition of a number of songs written at the time of the sinking which saw the failure of the ship as a result of God’s judgement (compare for example the traditional folk song from the era “God Moves on Water” which can be heard on the Dead Rock West album “Bright Morning Stars”). Dylan’s song takes this notion a step further, the journey-makers are sailing towards their destiny and their judgement even before the ship hits the iceberg.
Steve Turner recently wrote about the musicians who played on board the Titanic and it might be them you hear as violins open the song. The boat is:
“Sailing into tomorrow.
Into a golden age foretold”
(Bob Dylan, Tempest, (c) 2012)
And God is already at work as the journey begins:
“all the Lords and Ladies heading for their eternal home”
(Bob Dylan, Tempest, (c) 2012)
A watchman (another biblical motif) is sleeping rather than watching but even he is “dreaming that the Titanic is sinking into the underworld”.
One of Dylan’s favourites past times when not on stage recently has been sketching and painting. He has had three collections which have shown in galleries around the world. It is ironic therefore that one of the characters highlighted in the song, Leo, takes up his sketchbook. The narrator tells us “he was often so inclined”. It seems a huge coincidence that the re-born interest in the Titanic has come on the back of the cinema film of a few years which starred another Leo – Leonardo DiCaprio.
The ship’s journey is one of judgement. The sea (on God’s behalf) judges the individuals and all human nature:
“The ship was going under,
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The Angels turned aside”
(Bob Dylan, Tempest, (c) 2012)
“They tried to understand. But there is no understanding of the judgment of God’s hand.” (ibid)
Dylan has said in that recent interview that he failed to make the album that he wanted, and the final song seems particularly weak and out of place. “Roll on, John” is a tribute and memorial to the late John Lennon. Lennon was at odds with Dylan in the year before his death. Dylan had written “Gotta Serve Somebody” reminding us that whatever journey we take through life we must deal with God and avoid the Devil. Lennon sarcastically responded with a song called “Serve Yourself” which jibed at Dylan’s view of the world and humanity. Perhaps that row has stayed with Dylan all these years and he felt a need to honour and respect Lennon and put that uneasy time to rest. But if “Tempest” (the song) reminds us of earlier classics like “Desolation Row”, “Roll on John” is a much weaker song however well intentioned.
It does little more than bolt together phrases and titles of songs which we associate with the Beatles and Lennon’s solo career:
“Down in the quarry with the quarrymen…..
Another Day in the Life
On your way to your journey’s end”
(Bob Dylan, Roll on John © 2012)
Dylan in the past has written great testimonials, lyrical biographies and tributes, for example “Joey” (Joey Gallo), “Hurricane” (Rubin Carter), “In the Garden” (Jesus) to name just a few. There is nothing of such merit here and the album comes to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Many of Dylan’s albums recently have had the theme of God’s judgement and the apocalypse and the possibility of salvation (including “Time Out of Mind”, “Modern Times” and many of the out-takes on “Tell-Tale Signs”). Dylan has jibed at us for being surprised about this:
“I was sitting in church
On an old wooden chair
I know nobody would
Look for me there”
(Marchin’ to the City, Tell Tale Signs, Bob Dylan, © 2000)
But he is pre-occupied with the apocalypse, religion and God, no matter how we might see the world. “Tempest” is another testimony to this even if ultimately it is an uneven album. But in 2012 when Dylan is good, he is very good – and the end of the age he sees coming should scare us indeed. Even for those who seek God it is one that holds little comfort and no escape from trouble until the salvation is finally realised.