The name of Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album is intriguing and revelatory. “Tempest” is a long ballad about the Titanic, but of course no storm was involved in the ship’s sinking. The allusion to Shakespeare’s The Tempest is clear—despite Dylan’s denials—and recasts the magician Prospero as a gnarly storyteller with a guitar and tight backing band. It’s no brave new world that his words conjure up, but an ancient and troubled one. Yet there’s redemption at the end.
Tempest is Dylan’s longest-ever studio recording, and his rattling, ravaged voice is in grand form. He sings close, all syllables are clearly enunciated, and everything—as usual—is a live take. The nuanced intonation, clever phrasing, and impeccable sense of stress and timing pull the listener in.
The title track comprises 45 four-line stanzas, written in the old ballad style and sung to a jaunty waltz-time variant of a Celtic air. There’s no bridge, and no solos—as with traditional ballads, the repeating pattern enables Dylan to create a trance-like atmosphere for the epic. “Tempest” is highly cinematic, and Dylan alludes openly to James Cameron’s Titanic. But it goes deeper into the psyche. Dylan plays with the shipwreck as a potent symbol, not only of the financial crash of 2008 but of life’s fragility.
Tempest’s body count is high. The final song is the stately and poignant “Roll on John”, about his friend John Lennon, beginning with his assassination. It’s nostalgic but hard-hitting—“They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth/Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave”—and Dylan quotes Lennon and English visionary poet William Blake.
At the end of this harrowing but often beautiful underworld journey to the dark corners of heart and mind, Dylan returns us to the light with his evocation of the healing creativity and vision that Lennon—and he too—embodied in the ’60s and ’70s, and which continue to nourish pop music. Tempest is the finest album Dylan has made in a generation: the sustained, coherent, and compelling late work of a master songwriter not yet ready like Prospero to break and bury his staff. Roll on, Bob.