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Bob Dylan's Near Perfect Storm
The master songwriter's new record is called Tempest – and it includes both a tribute to John Lennon and an epic chantey on the sinking of the Titanic. A world exclusive preview by Anne Margaret Daniel.
Anne Margaret Daniel, 17 Aug 2012
'Pay in Blood' is also a great song. The Dylan move of someone’s gonna pay, but it ain’t gonna be me, is an old one. He’s slippery, and gets out of the fixes he gets himself into in his songs…most of the time. “Arms and legs, body & bone / I’ll pay in blood, but not my own.” It’s got a taunting, judging tone to it that fits the words perfectly into the tune.
'Scarlet Town' was one of my very favorites. My mother’s family are farmers from western North Carolina, who came there from Scotland (where my many-times-great grandmother was bonnie Annie Laurie) in the 1760s. My grandmother sang me to sleep when I was a child with 'Barbara Allen', her favorite ballad, and it’s always been mine. Not exactly an uplifter, but what ballad is? One of the great evenings of my life was hearing Dylan singing 'Barbara Allen' in the summer of 1988 at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Well, I think if Grandma had sung me to sleep with 'Scarlet Town', I’d have been a tad more unsettled than 'Barbara Allen' probably had already made me in my dreams. The tune is gorgeous, and the song sung sweetly and softly, every word crystal clear, enunciated and carefully pronounced. You won’t need a lyric sheet for this record. (I don’t understand people who complain they can’t tell what Dylan’s saying/singing: he’s very precise these days.) Like many of the songs on Tempest, 'Scarlet Town’s' got an archaic feel – and not just because its roots are in an old ballad’s roses and briars. Scarlet Town, where I was born, with its golden leaves and silver thorn, could have come from a Yeats poem of the 1890s. The town itself is far from perfect, with its marble slabs and graveyards and deaths – but, the singer reminds you repeatedly, still you regret leaving it, and you know you’ll come back there some day.
'Early Roman Kings' is a rhyming romp – lecherous and treacherous, peddlers and meddlers. I was laughing through it, and wincing sometimes, too, at the hard images. The Muddy Waters riff that drives 'Mannish Boy', that Muddy in turn got from a hundred older bluesmen, pulls the words along in a river. It’s sort of a voodoo song, with all the kings like Baron Samedis. They’re not in togas or on coins, but in their sharkskin suits, in their top hats and tails, nailed in their coffins (so they can’t get out, presumably, though beware, they DO). All the centuries are jumbled together like tossed cards. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much the way human history goes down, and always will. When the singer starts cautioning you, near the end, that he’s going to start acting like an early Roman king, you’d better stay on your toes. Or, better yet, head for the hills.