‘Tempest’ proves Dylan still has lyrical chops

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It’s been nearly 50 years since the answer was blowin’ in the wind, but “Tempest”—Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album—reaffirms him as one of the most important songwriters ever.

With “Tempest,” Dylan continues his late-career success that began with 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” At 71, Dylan’s voice is raspier than ever, and the overall tone of the album is dark.

The album kicks off with its first single, “Duquesne Whistle.” The song begins with a bluesy intro and a reserved rhythm section that gradually builds with every verse; eventually the organs shriek, and the guitar plays a solo reminiscent of ‘50s rockabilly style.

Song three, “Narrow Way,” introduces the cynicism and darkness that is typical with the majority of “Tempest.” When Dylan sings, “This is a hard country, to stay alive in/Blades are everywhere, and they’re breaking my skin,” you believe him. The gruffness of his voice adds mystery to lines such as this; it’s hard to tell if he’s pleading for help or just being grave to get a rise out of people.

Through four songs “Tempest” is solid, but there isn’t anything overly impressive. Then “Pay in Blood” comes along.

“Pay in Blood” is the best Dylan song since the mid ‘70s, and the instrumental moves the heart more than most music can. Scratching guitars, sliding guitars, and engaging lyrics—“You got the same eyes that your mother does/If only you could prove who your father was”—make listening to this song a new experience every time.

The rest of the album builds off “Pay in Blood.” “Early Roman Kings” integrates a classic blues riff with bravado lyrics, proving Dylan is more than just a folk singer. “Tin Angel” is reminiscent of Dylan’s work during his born-again Christian period.

The most interesting song on “Tempest” shows both the strengths of Dylan and the weaknesses of the album.

The title track is nearly 14 minutes long and includes 45 verses—all detailing the Titanic tragedy. Dylan goes into great detail, and witty pop-culture references and clever rhymes nearly keep it fresh. Fourteen minutes, though? The chord progression doesn’t change the entire song, which displays a shortcoming of many of the songs on the album: repetition.

Yes, if you enjoy explosive guitar solos, gigantic bass lines and catchy choruses, you will not like this album. Most of the 10 songs stick to a verse after verse format, with the additional instrumental break or refrain, and the lengths of the songs will make the repetition even more daunting for those who aren’t familiar with Dylan.

If you’ve never heard Dylan, how will you know if you might be a fan?

Contemporary acts such as Mumford & Sons, The Decemberists and The Lumineers all have touches of Dylan laced in their music. Some of the instrumentals on “Tempest” actually remind me of Mumford & Sons’ recent work. 

“Tempest” is all about lyrics. Dylan is one of the greatest songwriters ever, and some of the songs here are his best in years. Check it out—if his gruff voice and gruffer lyrics don’t intimidate you.