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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
In all these middle songs, taken together, I remember feeling dangers all around by the end of them. There are harsh phrases (politicians full of piss, bastards, and, somewhere, a “flat-chested junkie whore”) that put you on guard and that really make you listen, and think. Having yourself primed that way, while also irrevocably tapping your toes and rocking to the tunes, is an excellent way to be as you come to realize that the next song is the one about Titanic.
'Tempest' is a flood, less a matter of a particular ship sinking than the waters constantly rising, and rising. From the set-up for this nearly quarter-hour song (the scene of a woman in a saloon, getting ready to sing the song about the Great Ship), with its rolling, flowing 1-2-3 waltz ripple-beat, to the fade-out of its conclusion, 'Tempest' is a mesmerizing ballad. It feels like someone’s dangling a watch in front of your face, swinging it back and forth as what’s going to happen inexorably comes to pass. You know the history of Titanic, you know the stories made of it from novels to recent movies, and you can’t stop it, you just have to sit there and respect it. As you listen, you bear witness. The ship’s watchman is a perfect recurring figure to keep you company, watching along with you (he reminds me of the fez-wearing desk clerk in 'Black Diamond Bay', a cataclysmic ballad also). The watchman’s a fine character for a refrain, seen dozing while dancers circle; seen later as the ship begins to go down; and seen wanting, finally, to send a message to someone when it’s far too late. The images are powerful: the dark cold sky full of stars; John Jacob Astor kissing his darling wife; even Leo and his sketchpad. Leo appears again, with Cleo this time, later in the song. He, and she, will make Dylanologists run amok linking Di Caprio and Cleopatra, I expect: two people famous for being in boats. After all, Cleo has that barge, in which she makes her triumphal entrance for Antony in one of the most famous, doomed, spectacular scenes in all of Shakespeare. What people won’t concentrate on is what’s simplest and happiest for a song: the fact that Leo and Cleo rhyme. The use of the movie Titanic is good, and smart – it shows an awareness, without judging the fact, that Leo’s movie is what Titanic means to most people today. Like me, Dylan’s remembered that stunning scene of the drowned woman in her long gown, floating in the risen waters above the elaborate staircase as if she’s dancing; he refers to it powerfully. Certain lines, like the one about petals falling from the vases of fresh flowers in a first-class area, are particularly lyric. As I listened to this song, though, I thought about Noah and Katrina as much as I did about Titanic. Maybe more. To call it epic isn’t too strong.