If the earth could sing, it would sound just like Bob Dylan on his new album Tempest. His voice gravelly, deep, grounded, pungent, real. His music and lyrics angry, honest, dark, quirky, and challenging. Spiritually reborn.
But that’s not what I expected of Tempest. When I heard Dylan sing with Mumford and Sons on the Grammy awards a few years back, it made me cringe. He sounded terrible, and looked unprepared and lost on stage. A new generation leaving the old poet behind. Right before my eyes Dylan was living out Neil Young’s line, “Rock and roll is here to stay/It’s better to burn out/Than to fade away.” Dylan, I grieved, was fading away.
Bob Dylan has been one of my poetic heroes, spurring me on as a writer by proving a well chosen word is worth a thousand pictures. Before I dreamed of being a novelist, I wanted to be a song writer. Or at least a poet. Later a poetry professor of mine complained that too few people read and understood good poetry. But that the best of rock and roll was poetry being reborn with music as its foundation. I believe Bob Dylan is the singer/song writer/poet laureate of that movement. But the movement seemed to have left him behind.
In listening to Tempest I discovered my fears were unfounded.
Tempest is musically and lyrically rich and varied. He stabs at blues, ballads, a tribute, love songs, and a train song. Each with a unique sound using banjoes, electric guitars, and even a country/Hawaiian sound. In the midst of polished, studio perfected, bland, sound-alike, “American Idol” techno teenagers singing about their vacuous lives, I needed a rugged, earthy, musically unique, spiritual dose of Dylan.
And if you let his old, course voice throw you off, you’re missing out.
Dylan not only has a unique, gravelly, and poetic voice, but a spiritual one too. Even outside of his “Christian phase” Dylan dug into spiritual ground. New Testament and English Literature professor Michael J. Gilmour, who has written a couple of books on Dylan, believes Dylan is a “serious religious thinker,” and a “musical theologian.”
Maybe this comes from his Jewish roots. Or maybe Dylan, unlike so many of us, lives from the soul out. Dylan once sang, “I gave you my heart/But you wanted my soul,” In Tempest Dylan holds nothing back and gives us his soul. Though we may not all like what we see.
And Tempest is not just vaguely spiritual.
He ties many of the 10 songs on Tempest to biblical truths with poetic threads.
In “Pay in Blood” he sings, “Man can’t live by bread alone/I pay in blood but not my own” quoting both the Old Testament and Jesus while referencing our desperate need for sacrificial atonement. Or at least that’s what this song drew me to.
More obliquely, in “Narrow Way” Dylan complains, “It’s a long road/it’s a long and narrow way/If I can’t work up to you/you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.” In this achingly honest song, I heard a personal poetic description of how hard Dylan has found it to live and love well. And I saw myself there. I too need God to reach down to me because I cannot reach God. This, of course, is the truth of Jesus’ incarnation. Jesus worked down to us.
But it’s not all dust and ashes, with lyrical help from Robert Hunter, on “Duquesne Whistle,” Dylan sings in a voice and style that embodies Louie Armstrong, while proclaiming hope:
“You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going
You’re like a time bomb in my heart
I can hear a sweet voice gently calling
Must be the mother of our Lord
Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing.”
So, as many have hoped or feared, has Dylan remained a Christian but only kept his faith, his soul a secret? Only Dylan and God know who the time bomb living in his heart is. When I hear Dylan sing of “that Duquesne whistle blowing,” I hear hope in Christ. But, unlike “Roll on John,” which is a clear tribute to John Lennon, I don’t know if Jesus is who Dylan is singing about when he scratches out, “Your father left you, your mother too/Even death has washed his hands of you.” Sure sounds like a picture of the cross to me.
But fear not. Simply because I have listened for and found references to my Christian faith in Tempest does not mean this is a Christian album. Christian radio K-Love would never touch an artist or recording so negative and discouraging, or so real.
Instead Dylan proves that musical poetry is a dangerous and wonderful medium because we see and get what we each need from it. It is an opening of the soul. Nobody does it like Dylan.
In “My My, Hey Hey” Neil Young sings, “Once you’re gone/you never come back.” On Tempest Dylan bares his soul and answers, “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings/I keep my fingers crossed/like early Roman kings.”
0 thoughts on “In Tempest Bob Dylan Gives us His Soul: A Review”
Great review, Eugene. I’ve never shied away from Dylan’s gravelly voice–it always came across to me as uniquely effective just as his lyrics are uniquely effective, uniquely Dylan’s and no one else’s. His lyrics always transcend the limits of our consciousness, introducing new realities within and between both our human and spiritual lives. Tempest is amazing, without question. Two of the songs you mentioned–Pay in Blood and Duquesne Whistle–along with Scarlet Town and Long and Wasted Years are some of the best he’s done in a long time. This album, I would argue, is his best since Time out of Mind and competes very strongly with that one, as well. Thanks for your thoughtful, dead-on review.
Duquesne Whistle will not quit playing through my mind. I can hear that Duquesne Whistle even while hunting. Becoming one of my favorite songs. Thanks for reading, Joe.
dear Eugene,… I wrote you such a nice comment, but it got totally lost in transmission,… not sure if I’ll try to reconstruct it,…
An outline of the lost comment would look something like this:
(1) my own personal reminiscent ramblings about the highly inviting and intrinsically subjective nature of how one is able (or drawn) to relate to the (undefined) “vagueness” that presides in most modern art forms,… this vagueness opens/yields itself to a variety of very personal and subjective interpretations, to be made by the observers, and sometimes rather dubiously or conflictingly so,… (with some examples of actual weirdnesses that does go on),…
(2) the unrest, angst, and even chaos inherent in the felt messages of the time (’60s and ’70s), were easily communicated to a generation of youth who also were easily influenced and subjectively identified with the compelling themes, but — which came first?,… the high-profile, highly suggestive and motivating “prophets and messengers” of the day, or the pervasive subjective malaise and resulting default changed lifestyles of the hearers?,… or was it all just some kind of “new age synchronicity” moment?
(3) as compelling as it all was, it was a destabilizing time, and I could never find comfort or security in what was going on,… I then hypothesized that all the angst and vagueness drove me right into God’s permanent waiting arms,…
(4) noted that poetry in the Bible is not at all similarly vague, or yielding of itself to personal subjective interpretation,… but it is very inspiring and deeply personal, nonetheless,… just not vague and unclarified!
(5) probably a little more blah blah blah,… oh, like when people are subjectively drawn into identifying with a meaning or a message, feeling that this helps them experience better “who” they are,… and some more blah blah blah,…
(6) the grand finale being a description of our current local open mic attendees,… mostly a casual, “aging hippie” crowd,… very good musicians, including a good many faithful performers and fans of Bob Dylan and Neil Young music,… their mutual admiration and comfortable comradery is evident,… It’s obvious how really happy a well-done version of this music will make them all feel, even if the song itself was about as angst-ridden, and sad and bitter as it gets!,… so, it’s pretty amazing stuff,… I stick with sentimental old standards, Christian music and Broadway,… but we all love each other,… and, happily, I’d have to say, “I guess that’s just what it’s all about!”
(7) I haven’t heard anything from this new album yet, so I have nothing really to say about it,… I do hope the best for these longtime, high-profile “seekers” who have meant so much to a lot of people,…
(I just remembered to copy this before sending!,… thank goodness,… new policy!)
edit: I prefer the “camaraderie” spelling from Brendan’s Hobbit article to the one I found in the online dictionary,…
You are amazing, G-A.
thank you?,… and: (ha ha,… my road’s been long and twisty too!),…
I’ve seriously “studied” and questioned this kind of stuff for a really very long time,… for many, it was the pretty much unavoidable “default setting” of the ’60s,…
It can all be very compelling and perplexing to the young, who are “trying to come into their own”,… but after awhile you can really begin to sort things out, and make some actual “sense” out of quite a bit of it,… Art, psychology, human inclinations, modern life, spiritual searches, venerable traditions, lost paths, false prophets, cults, hope, disappointment, and sifting through it all, pressing on to find Truth,…
If you’re lucky/blessed, you will find the True Gold, having sifted through a lot of junk, or tantalizing but misleading tid-bits, along the way,… your discernment will become much better attuned,… God just seems to have all the BEST answers!,… You can have your feet on the ground, your mind can reach to the heavens, and your heart can be filled with Love!,…
I’m very thankful that my path — personally confusing enough as it was — wasn’t blurred by drugs,… those (that I knew) who seriously thought they were “finding God”, or themselves, through heavy drug usage, were lucky enough just to survive, (imho),… some not really normal, some still very suggestible, some impaired, some having dealt with the rough extremes of addiction, some just having taken longer to get where they’re going, but thank goodness, they seem to be getting there!
btw: edit: (1) above: NOT: “actual weirdnesses that does go on”
BUT: either: actual weirdness that does go on
or: actual weirdnesses that do/did go on
also,… sorry,… I have some great examples, but I’m afraid they’d be too incriminating to some good enough folks I’ve known, even long ago,… that if they would ever chance to see this, I would feel bad about seeming to put them in a kind of “bad light”,… so, maybe that’s part of why the original post got lost,… anyway,… ca sera sera,…
I’m going to pray some Yom Kippur prayers,… I’m trusting God to show me how to pray,…
It’s a long road, it’s a long and narrow way’ – looks like ‘Dylan, Depression and Faith’ was right and that Christmas in the Heart is still being celebrated…
I have not read that book. But I read a blog about it. Interesting ideas. Thanks for commenting.