Tempest, Bob Dylan (Columbia, 2012)
I recently asked my daughter, "Who is that singing?" She answered, "Louis Armstrong; don't tell me it's not Louis Armstrong." In the opening track on Tempest, "Duquense Whistle," Bob Dylan does a credible Satchmo, and throughout the hour-plus collection of songs, his vocals are masterful; decades of smoking may have robbed him of his original voice, but they left him a new instrument to work with, a gravelly growl that brooks no argument when he sings a line like "I pay in blood, but not my own."
Identifying Dylan's sources for vocals, melodies and lyrics is a source of pride and pleasure for Dylanologists young and old, and from the opening Armstrong-inspired singing to the final tribute to John Lennon, the internet is abuzz with observations and interpretations. The protagonists in "Early Roman Kings" are not ancient Romans, but members of a South Bronx gang, "The Roman Kings." The first line of "Tin Angel," "It was late last night when the boss came in," is from the folk song "Gypsy Davey," while "Scarlet Town" taps "Barbara Allen" for its initial line, "In Scarlet Town where I was born." No surprisingly, Dylan alludes to Beatles' songs in his tribute to Lennon, "Roll on John," but also manages to work in some William Blake. (For these sources and others, see rapgenius.com)
The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play. Might this be Dylan's last trip to the studio? Probably not. And, in any case, in contrast to Shakespeare's Prospero who deals out mercy, Dylan's tempest is a blood bath. "Tin Angel" ends with the dead bodies of three lovers in a heap; the title "Pay in Blood" speaks for itself, and the tribute to the murdered John Lennon that ends the CD follows"Titanic," which increases the death toll by 1,600. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan noted that many artists have written songs about the Titanic and then added "If you're a folk singer, blues singer, rock & roll singer, whatever in that realm, you oughta write a song about the Titanic because that's the bar you have to pass." Dylan took that task seriously, producing a fourteen-minute song. If the song's length and tempo has a lulling effect, that is as it should be, for they complement the watchman's dreamy state and evoke the complacency that precedes disaster.
This year President Obama presented Dylan with a prestigious Medal of Freedom, noting that "there is not a bigger giant in the history of American music." Tempest is solid evidence that Dylan deserved that accolade.