The Panorama and the Portrait – A Review of Bob Dylan’s Tempest
By Neal Baker
At no point in his career has Bob Dylan tried to cast his net wide and reel in fans – it has always been the crowd that flocks to Dylan, in the hope that they can see between the lines, beneath the words, and understand what makes one of the most creative minds in the history of American music tick. His new album, Tempest, highlights this truth as much as any of Dylan’s previous records; it’s the bread and butter that Dylan fans have been yearning for since his last record, 2009’s Together Through Life; it’s something to sink their teeth into; a history-rich tapestry of various rhythms, styles, images, colours and tones.
This, however, isn’t to say that it’s inaccessible to anyone who is inquisitive enough to try to join this ‘flock’ of fans, or even at least see what all the fuss is about – it stands on its own feet as a most confident record, with its confidence radiated through the now infamous voice of Dylan’s being captured at close range, close to the microphone, and beckoning us to go along for the ride.
The ride that we go on is vast in its scope yet exact in its style – Dylan can somehow paint a panorama and a por
trait simultaneously; look through a telescope with one eye and a microscope with another. The title track Tempest highlights this as much as any other song on the record, with its macroscopic allegory being the sinking of the Titanic in a 45-verse Irish folk-epic format, containing specifically morbid images of death, murderousness and destruction, but being juxtaposed with the ultimately fruitless acts of selflessness by certain characters: “Brother rose up against brother…they fought and slaughtered each other” versus “Jim-lad just smiled / He’d never learned to swim / He turned to the crippled child / and gave his [lifeboat] seat to him.” To understand the power of this song is to understand the power of Dylan in general; the merging of truths and myths, one time and another, to try to express the inexpressible, and verbalise what can otherwise only be dreamed or imagined.
Timeless themes of poetic love, discovery, guilt, animal-lust and inevitable mortality permeate the whole record, with the lyrical composition of Dylan being at the top of its form, demonstrating his immense power to give us humour, irony, satire, seriousness and emotion all with his unique stamp of wordplay and metaphor that sets him above and beyond the rest.
The formula is perfect; the assertive voice crooning through vivid, sometimes visceral, time-travelling lyrical perspectives to the sounds of precise yet naturalistic melodies. It’s much easier said than done, making it all the more palpable when one hears it.
To follower and newcomer alike, this record cannot be recommended highly enough.