To be honest, I never thought I would be listening to this record this early; certainly not BEFORE it’s official release. I was not explicitly seeking to avoid it, but since stumbling into the news back in January that it was being recorded, its progress reports have floated in and out of my life w/ less than no bearing. I can’t think of an instance where the phrase “couldn’t care less” fits better. I don’t say all that to put anyone down, only to illustrate my complete indifference. I figured I’d find it a few years down the road in the used bin, and take it home out of curiosity.
Then that atrocious single, Early Roman Kings, found it’s way into my inbox. NOW I more or less WAS actively avoiding the record. That song is quintessential example of how to play blues POORLY; the reason that riff works on so many old blues records is because things are happening!!!!! The musicians are allowed to PLAY, there’s an excitement, energy, a spirit in the air that is so close to being tangible that it can’t help but come through in the playing. The music is ALIVE!!!! Pardon the pun, but this track is as dead as those early roman kings. (groan, I know)
It’s also about twice as long as it should be. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating; I could not make it through the track in one sitting. I had to stop it about halfway through, go do something, anything else for about 10 minutes, then come back and resume it. As it turns out, the second half IS just a boring as the first. It seems Dylan forgot that those old blues recordings had to fit on 45s, and are 2-3 minutes long. And they’re lively! Please, leave us wanting more, not taking 15 minutes to struggle though one single.
So, expecting the rest of the record to sound very much the same, I figured I was all set on this one for a very long time. Then a link to the whole thing showed up, and w/ the curiosity of someone who’s stumbled upon what they believe will be a gruesome train wreck, I inched forward.....
And I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised for a lot of it. Duquesne Whistle (Toucan Whistle, it sounds like) is actually a very tight, beautiful song when the bizarre visuals of the video are removed. I really liked what each instrument was doing, (great guitar tone, great brush recording) really liked the whole final product, and, actually, really liked the lyrics and the color of the vocals. And, it was the perfect length, which, looking back now, is a bit of a miracle.
Hmm, that wasn’t horrible at all! If this sets the tone, this record is gonna be good!
And, just like that, Soon After Midnight appears, ushered in on a beautiful tried and true progression that makes the cut sound like it was pulled right out of the 50s. I personally love that stuff, but the wider effect gives the song a familiar feel, you’ve heard it all your life, it’s always been there, in the back of your conscious somewhere. While some of the lyrics make me roll my eyes, overall, they kept w/ the mid-century feel, while also never losing sight of the smirking darkness that is Dylan. My only complaint w/ this one is that it is too short, unbearably short, almost.
So, two tracks in, just when I’m starting to really like the record, along comes Narrow Way and tramples my newly raised expectations. I’m sorry, I tried to be a good critic, but I cannot make it through this thing in its entirety, for the same reasons it took two goes at Kings; too long, too stale. The lyrics are negligible, the delivery rushed, the band is kept on too tight a leash and made to repeat an uninteresting phrase w/ little variation. So, of course, I have the horrible feeling that this is going to get played ad naseaum in future shows. It sounds a lot like an outtake from the TTL record, which isn’t really a compliment.
Doing what Jack Frost should have, and cutting Narrow Way short, I now find myself at Long and Wasted Years, which gives me the idea for this record’s motif; that is to say, it sounds more like a Bootleg Series release than a album of similar material. The soundscape of this one certainly seems to recall TOOM sessions (or era, perhaps more aptly), which IS a compliment. Especially in the verse, as the instrumentals seem to grow more powerful as the lyrics (finally) arrive on a direction. Before that, however, it is mighty apparent that this is a sketch of a song; the lyrics seem to wander aimlessly in every direction. They have something to say, but they’re not sure how to go about doing it yet, and each of the other aspects are still feeling their way along. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy this song, as I like many of the unreleased, underdeveloped, exploratory songs that make their appearance years later on BS releases. But ultimately, that’s how it should have been presented, as a song in development. Something for the scholars and fans to enjoy and dissect, and compare to the superior, finished version. This song, unfortunately, is still a work in progress.
Pay In Blood, despite the title, is quite inoffensive/unremarkable. Not good, but not too bad either. Unbelievably average, it no doubt will entrench itself in live setlists for years to come as well. Soundwise, its not too terribly related to the TTL songs, but in overall forgetability, it ranks right among most of them.
After just one listen, Scarlet Town is tied w/ Midnight for personal favorite. At first, I wasn’t really sure of it. It seemed like both the lyrics and the melody were trying too hard to force the listener into uneasiness; like dragging someone into a haunted house but forgetting to turn the lights off. However, as the song continued, the eeriness closed in, completely naturally. I cant put my finger on why it suddenly works, but at some point, it just does! And it’s good. For me, its not quite the all out unsettling feeling you get listening to Man In The Long Black Coat, but more akin to seeing Aint Talkin on a night when the 05-09 band was really on, really in tune w/ each other; ineffable. Sadness, pain, alienation, disassociation. You’re an outsider in a place where it’s a bit dangerous to be an outsider.
But by far, the most unusual song on the record is Tin Angel. Even before a word is ever uttered, you hear this comically annoying oompa loompa beat, which is joined by an oompa loompa melody, and an oompa loompa cadence. That you’re actually being told this twisted parable further emphasizes this dark cartoon-scape. Originally I saw a Snidley Whiplash style of villain slinking scene to scene, but as the song went on, it became increasingly easier to see the character as someone who’s facial expressions and demeanor inexplicably resemble Romney’s.... Anyway, I listened w/ a permanent halfsmile, as I tried to figure out whether this was really cool, or just too weird. I still don’t know. One thing I do know, it is TOO long. This type of thing can be supported for about 6 min, maybe, this probably could have held 6 minutes, but who knows, because it drags on past the 9 minute mark. Again, know when to end.
This song is the most religious, but there is a weird religious tone that runs deep throughout the whole thing. Though, to someone w/ admittedly almost no biblical knowledge, it seems to draw on a Faustian, Ichebod Crane type of mythology, rather then biblical fables.
The title track is DEFINITELY something that should have ONLY seen the light of day on a Bootleg Series release. This is a truly epic undertaking, in all sense of the word, and is about as big a disaster as the one it describes. Think Joey, Lenny Bruce, Brownsville Girl, etc. Now, imagine them longer, more rambling, more boring. I know some fans claim they could listen to Dylan read the phonebook. Well, folks, this is not far from it. First, the source material is widely available for us to access ourselves. Second, this song offers NO new or unique insight to what is taking place. He basically just tells us what happens onscreen. Musically, its very similar to Cross The Green Mountain. However, in that one, the music helps us empathize w/ the soldiers. Here, the lyrics are so cold and matter of fact, I really don’t care a bit for anyone involved. Just sink already, so this song will end!!! I pray that this only took one take, because anything more constitutes torture for the musicians. As far as I can tell, I don’t really see a redeeming quality of this song, other than being used to get rid of people who’ve overstayed their welcome at a party.
The final song, I’m sad to say, I also found to be a drag. I’m not a big Lennon fan, at all, but I was interested to hear this. Unfortunately, straight tribute songs are not Dylan’s strong suite. Again, think of Lenny Bruce. This one is just as awkward; musically, lyrically, everything. Had it not been the last track, I would have issued it no more thought, however, I do find its placement a tad interesting to think about.
So much has been made over the fact that it’s called Tempest, he’s 71, he’s lived a, erm, full life.... it does seem logical to contemplate the ramifications should this be his last record. Now, I am not saying that I know (or even care) what he was thinking about, or what he had in mind while writing or making this record. In some sense, that doesn’t even matter, seeing how artists’ intentions and public interpretations/reactions to the art after it is unveiled can be completely independent of each other.
So, if this is, in fact, the last song on the last record, it could easily be read as a farewell, not just to a friend lost years ago, but also to the impending loss of his own life. It seems natural for humanity to contemplate that. How do you say goodbye to yourself? How do you want to be sent off?
(Thankfully) the only part of the song that sticks w/ me, is the oft-repeated chorus:
Shine a light/ Move it on/ You burned so bright/ Roll on, John
It doesn’t matter what Dylan was or was not thinking when he wrote that. It doesn’t matter if he makes 15 more records and lives for 30 more years, I read that line as a older man, seeing more in the rearview mirror than on the horizon, and accepting that.
Roll on, Bob.
Only time will tell how this record fares in Dylan’s canon. Me though? I’m glad I opened it up. There are some really good little songs in there.