The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play so it seems fitting to speculate that Bob Dylan’s latest album, Tempest, could well be his last. At 71 his rasping voice sounds as though it is nearing its end. In time honored fashion Dylan is saying nothing.
The album itself, which is probably the best he has released since Desire days, calls on all the influences from a long and varied career – electric blues, country, rock n roll – and to be fair are all played by some of the best and tightest musicians in Dylan’s history.
This is not a homespun apple-pie collection of songs. They appear to come from a deep dark place within Dylan. It feels like he is taking a long hard look at life and death, and maybe his own mortality.
Tracks like Narrow Way, Pay in Blood and Long and Wasted Years flow like a retrospective glance back at a long hard career.
The opening track, Duquesne Whistle, is a hobo style train song, but man is it sinister, whilst Scarlet Town brings to life the no-hope low points of a corrupt and hard-hit city. The 46-verse title track seems like a throwback to Desolation Row but slides beautifully to a grim end.
The last track on the album, Roll On John is an elegy for John Lennon, but is just maybe a hymn to the silence that Dylan will eventually reach.
Unlike some artists who faced their own mortality in an album, Dylan has not borrowed from any other artist, in the same way that for instance, Johnny Cash did but stands alone, on his own ground and faces down the demons.
Dylan has always led whilst others followed, be it from the Woody Guthrie inspired days that helped the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary to fame, or the electrifying Like a Rolling Stone. He introduced the Beatles to dope and led them through The Gates of Eden. OK he did occasionally dabble in religion but came back with the majesty of Blood on the Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.
Is this now his most significant step? Looking at death and at his dwindling twilight days?