‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’: Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Tempest

by elmergantry

In relation to Tempest, I recently found the following quote from Greil Marcus, which, rather surprisingly, summarises my own feelings about Dylan’s current band very well:

‘The band that Bob Dylan works with now is not a strong band. They’re not a challenging band, except for Charlie Sexton, the lead guitar player. There’s no one with an individual sensibility, with his own grasp of a song and where to take it, to challenge Dylan as a singer. The music for the most part is backup. It’s often a repetitive figure played over and over again, so that all your focus is on the singing, on the voice. But Bob Dylan has always sung best, he’s always been most alive, combative and finding surprises in a song, when a band is challenging him, when the musicians are going somewhere he couldn’t have anticipated. I don’t think that’s happening here.’

What I think stands out out on Tempest is how mechanical the Band sounds throughout – except, perhaps, for ‘Duquesne Whistle’ and the guitar solo on ‘scarlet Town’. On the rest of the album what is lacking is the looseness and the sense of spontaneity that you find in Dylan’s best work. There seems to be no space for the musicians to express themselves in.

This leads, I think, to the sense of tedium and monotony that sets in on the longer songs on the album…

In the same piece, however, Marcus also praises ‘Tin angel’ – which I find a monotonous song, with lyrics which are markedly inferior to those of the Child ballads on which the song is based…

Indeed, I don’t really understand how anybody can see clunky lines like this as good…especially by Dylan’s standards:

‘He pondered the future of his fate
To wait another day would be far too late’

or
‘You are making my heart feel sick
Put your clothes back on, double-quick” (The Boss)’

and

“Oh, my dear, you must be blind
He’s a gutless ape with a worthless mind”

These are surely contenders for the next edition of ‘The Stuffed Owl’.

I also feel as if part of the problem with ‘Tempest’ is the way in which Dylan works in strict forms (like the ballad form of both ‘Tin Angel’ and “Tempest’) which require a kind of regular rhyme and rhythm. It seems to me that most of Dylan’s best work as a lyric writer comes in looser forms where he uses internal rhymes, stretching out lines, etc. etc…

It takes a very particular kind of skill and disciple to work in those kind of forms and avoid becoming montonous…

To my mind, at least at present, Dylan does not have that kind of concentrated discipline anymore. I also think his borrowings add to this problem, because he is continually faced with the difficulty of finding rhymes for lines he has not written – and this sets up many of those times where he lapses into bathos or into, as Michael Gray has pointed out, a kind of McGonnigalesque style …

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