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.”