I Can Hear the Echoes Ring
Columbia Records, 2012
The tempest struggles in the air
And to myself alone I sing
It could sink me then and there
I can hear the echoes ring
-“Tell ol’ Bill”- Bob Dylan
Tempest, Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album, confirms that the “poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll” is still a driving force of nature. Released on the 50th anniversary of his eponymous first album, Tempest is hardly the valedictory and retrospective project that some critics would have it be. Rather, it demonstrates the remarkable vitality and consistency of Dylan’s artistic practice from 1962 to 2012: like so many of his albums, this one openly mines past materials, especially old blues and old ballads, and transforms them into something rich and strange—and boldly anachronistic. Where some would see Dylan as a mere imitator and plagiarist (most recently the perfidious Joni Mitchell, on whom Dylan takes his revenge by stealing her song title “The Tin Angel”), Tempest throws into relief the degree to which his “derivative” practice is anything but unoriginal.
Being “derivative,” of course, has a long and distinguished history among twentieth-century American artists. The eccentric late-modernist Robert Duncan boldly abjured originality and proclaimed himself “not an experimentalist or an inventor but a derivative poet”, a human receptacle for the visionary intensities of the “Open Universe.” Similarly, his friend the poet Jack Spicer likened poets to radios and claimed his poems were transmitted to him from Mars. If we go back further to the “captain’s tower” of “Desolation Row”, we find Ezra Pound exhorting fellow poets to pillage the past and “make it new” and T.S. Eliot announcing that “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” In his latest Rolling Stone interview, Dylan himself issues a pointed reply to the “wussies and pussies” who single him out for criticism, asserting that “in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition.” “Fuck ‘em,” he adds, in a rather more Poundian than Eliotic vein, “I’ll see them all in their graves.”
Here it should be noted that for the past ten years Dylan has been introduced at his shows as the “poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll,” a title derived from a 2002 review that unintentionally qualifies as a perfect parody of every bad Dylan review. While it is a commonplace, perpetuated by academics and acid casualties alike, that rock stars like Dylan or Jim Morrison or Leonard Cohen are “poets”, too rarely is it pointed out that Dylan’s specifically derivative artistic practice aligns him quite neatly with figures like Eliot and Duncan. If nothing else, he certainly shares their predilection for weird religious conversions. Tempest, like The Waste Land, invites us to read and track down its allusions even as it flagrantly sends us on historical wild goose chases, beginning with the title itself. Is this obvious reference to The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, meant to imply that Tempest will be Dylan’s last album? (No: Dylan shot down that hypothesis in an interview.) Dylan’s critics have always tried to find a foothold wherever they can, even in the most insubstantial and irrelevant of places. So where does this leave us? What footholds does Tempest offer?
The opening track, “Duquesne Whistle”, begins, fittingly, aboard a ghost train (the Duquesne was a daily New York-Pittsburgh train, renamed the Keystone in 1971). The intro’s sparse instrumentation and pleasant melody, reminiscent of a 1930s swing jig, suddenly gives way to an accelerated rhythm section that drives the song to its conclusion. This cheerful ditty, released as a single prior to the album’s release, is bizarrely paired with a violent music video that includes police chases, baseball bats to the knees and Dylan, sporting a mona-lisa smile, as the head honcho of an L.A. gang featuring a drag queen and a Gene Simmons impersonator.
Dylan is notorious for passing through new identities and musical phases, a process often heralded not only by changing subject matter but by the adoption of a new voice. In his latest phase, he brilliantly turns his decaying voice into his subject matter, as we discover in the next track, “Soon After Midnight.” This song closely echoes Bobby Fuller’s “A New Shade of Blue” and continues the familiar old-timey feeling of Dylan’s late period. His ravaged vocal chords lend this simple sweet love song an appealing pathos; sweet love songs should always sound this dirty. “Long and Wasted Years”, another love song that brokers a difficult peace with the past, features a singing-and-talking delivery similar to the grand “Brownsville Girl”, in which Dylan croons of long and squandered love over musical, repetitive phrases that complement well his voice’s sandpaper modulations.
Over the past 15 years, Dylan has drawn heavily on his blues background, and Tempest is no exception. In “Narrow Way,” he uses the Mississippi Sheiks’ popular 1930s song, “You’ll Work Down to me Someday” as a refrain (he covered two of the Sheiks’ songs on World Gone Wrong). He also channels Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” in “Early Roman Kings”, a 12-bar Texas blues decrying an age grown cynical and entrenched in violence and corruption by the “lecherous and treacherous”. In one of the most damning passages of Tempest, Dylan refers to Odysseus’ and Polyphemus’ violent encounter on the Island of the Cyclopes, lifting a quotation from Robert Fagles’ popular translation of the Odyssey:
I can strip you of life
strip you of breath
ship you down
to the house of death
Like The Tempest, the Odyssey is another obvious intertext for the whole album: it is the archetypal story of embattled wandering and storm-tossed strife. Through a swirling tempest of themes and chronicles of the past, present, and presumably future, the songs propels us over a current fretted with arbitrary, mostly retro images (imagine Willy Wonka’s crazy boat ride set to Louis Armstrong). Interestingly, the schlocky cover art of the album features Karl Kundmann’s sculpture personification of the Vltava, the longest river in the Czech Republic whose name derives from the Old High German for “wild river”. Does this “wild river” relate to Dylan’s “tempest” in some recondite way? Who can say?
As someone burdened with being the “voice of a generation”, it is quite amazing to see how Dylan’s recent music has become a voice of generations long forgotten. What place could there possibly be for a song like “Duquesne Whistle” in the age of Ke$ha and dubstep? Singing of slavery, John Lennon and the Titanic, Dylan is really (really) not interested in being prophetic; instead, he is a voice of untimely historical baggage. “Dylanology” might be an unfortunate pseudo-discipline, but it remains an intriguing exercise to explore the many literary and musical sources that insistently constellate around Dylan’s songs. “Pay in Blood”, one of Tempest’s finest pieces, is drenched in symbolism and history yet it still refuses to deliver any substantial answers. The most obvious allusion is to slavery in America, with an imagined dialogue between a slave and his owner (figures evoked, respectively, by major and minor chord changes):
I’m grinding my life out, steady and sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb
Driving deeper into the mysteries of Dylan’s poetic literacy, we find him lifting all kinds of material for “Scarlet Town”, a song that borrows from the abolitionist Fireside Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen”, and the popular English nursery rhyme “Little Boy Blue”. With its multiple rhyming stanzas, “Scarlet Town” takes us on a harrowing journey into a town of “flat-chested junkie whores” and fights fuelled by “whiskey, morphine and gin”. Religious allusions to the end of times and God sprinkled throughout the song and album also remind us of Dylan’s faith, the fact that (in typically cliché terms) he “sees God’s hand in everything”.
The album’s recurrent themes of unresolved closure and wandering between worlds come to a head in the title track. “Tempest” offers the clearest illustration of history’s tempestuous warp and woof in its retelling of the sinking of the Titanic on its 100-year anniversary. The song—at 14 minutes one of Dylan’s longest—is peculiar, but not uncharacteristically so given his tendency to include historical subject matter in his lengthier efforts. And yet, “history” here is barely recognizable as such, given the inclusion of “Leo” DiCaprio aboard the doomed vessel, as well as, among much else, a reference to the “lords and ladies” of Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” (the Irish poet’s vision of the afterlife). To Dylan, it doesn’t matter if a song is accurate or not. As he notes in the recent Rolling Stone interview: “a songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful [because] what he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened [because] that’s its own kind of truth”. Dylan’s rendering of the Titanic’s sinking presents history as the imperfect record of moments being misinterpreted and manipulated by the future.
Dylan closes the album with “Roll on, John”, an elegy for John Lennon that is interspersed with Beatles lyrics and references. The song brings us back 50 years to Dylan’s moving “Song to Woody”, an elegy ghosted by the melody of Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.” It also brings us back to 1962 in a more literal way: Dylan performed another song titled “Roll on, John” on a radio show in 1962. Asked why he waited over 30 years after Lennon’s death to record this homage, Dylan said, in a neat parody of Forrest Gump, that he “just felt like doing it, and now would be as good a time as any”. In regular Dylan fashion, we find ourselves stuck with another enigma wrapped in a cliché. Yet the search for answers will continue.
If Dylan died tomorrow, critics would likely point to his last five albums—with the exception of the perplexing “Christmas in the Heart”—as his return to relevance through dogged resistance to all things relevant. To save everyone the wait, I will go ahead and name this late period the “Resurgence”. Emerging from the darkness and morbidity of Time Out of Mind (1997), the “Resurgence” has been at times religious, outlandish, intense, depressing and comical. While Dylan has always been defined by the (il)logic of his “phases”, whether it is folk, electric, country, Christian, or whatever, what truly defines his achievement is the vast artistic and historical space he has cleared in his wake, a space he now inhabits, at once, as a living legend and as a parody of conventional professionalism. Derivative and timely, Tempest offers a fascinating glimpse into a new side of an old Dylan.
Jacob Ross completed a BA in business and music at American University in 2012.