Bob Dylan made the rare mistake of talking about his creative process shortly before the release of Tempest. He told Rolling Stone that he'd originally wanted to write a collection of what he called "religious songs," saying, "That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off — 10 times with the same thread than it does with a record like I ended up with." Which means that either his powers of concentration failed him, or he became distracted by other themes, topics and moods. I think it's a little bit of both. There are certainly songs here that sound less like concentrated efforts than outpourings of rambling thoughts; there are also songs here that are as precisely crafted as any he's written.
Take, for example, "Soon After Midnight." The beauty of the song's opening moments — the way the music rises up like mist to envelop the tender couplet, "I'm searching for phrases / To sing your praises" — is something to be cherished. We are better human beings for hearing such music. The melody is reminiscent of a 1950s doo-wop ballad, at once stately and deeply romantic. The lyric, however, is grounded in a kind of coarse realism that Dylan insists upon at nearly every turn on this collection, which at 68 minutes clocks in as one of his longest albums ever. Indeed, much of the tension in this new music comes from the contrast between the ringing loveliness of the guitars of Dylan and his band, and Dylan's growled words of sarcasm: a denial of repentance, boasts of sexual prowess and looks back in anger.
I have to grope outside of music to find expressions of thwarted love, of remembering painful stretches of life, as they are expressed in "Long and Wasted Years." The song describes love gone slowly, steadily more sour with a ruthlessness shaped by wit that reminds me of some of Philip Roth's fiction, or of Philip Larkin's poetry. When Dylan sings, "Ever hurt your feelings / I apologize," the sentiment is completely denied by the witheringly insincere tone of his voice. Make no mistake about it: A lot of the music here is mean-spirited and goatishly crude. No graphic rap music has anything on the brutal phrases Dylan uses to describe some women, and the revenge he exacts upon various foes and victims — who, in the title of another song, "Pay in Blood." And he's vehement about making clear that the blood isn't his.
The latter half of Tempest consists of long compositions that borrow from various genres, from the blues to sea chanties. Some of these are tiresome, such as the seemingly endless verses of the seven-minute "Scarlet Town." The song that's received the most media attention is the title tune, an almost 14-minute white whale about the sinking of the Titanic, in which Dylan mixes historical fact, imagined dialogue from real figures and a cameo by Leonardo DiCaprio — not even appearing as his film character Jack Dawson, but clinging to his sketchbook like a life raft.
Tempest the album is book-ended by two fascinating songs, one heartfelt but flawed, the other nearly perfect. The album closer is "Roll on John," a salute to John Lennon complete with Dylan's version of sampling — folding Lennon lyrics into his own. The opener is "Duquesne Whistle," with lyrics co-written by Robert Hunter. Its jazzy jauntiness is devilish and sly. It presents a Bob Dylan completely enthralled by his music, like a kid in a musical candy store, gorging on rare sweetness as though it was life-sustaining sustenance.