Soon after I first listened to Bob Dylan’s intense new album, Tempest, a friend who’d also heard it wanted to know what a historian made of its line, early on, about the British burning down the White House. I replied that I had no idea. And many listenings later, I still don’t. I did say that it felt as if there were more corpses scattered around at the end of the album than in all the productions of Hamlet ever mounted: sixteen hundred floating frozen in a single song, an epic waltz about the Titanic.
Many—if not most—of Americans’ favorite ballads deal with themes of twisted passion, heartbreak, and death. Look at “Barbara Allen”—the most widely sung ballad in the English language, and maybe the saddest—through “Omie Wise,” “Pretty Polly,” and “The Wreck of Old 97,” to Mark Dinning’s “Teen Angel,” Dolly Parton’s “Down from Dover” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”: all macabre ballads, fixed on death. Much of Tempest is too.
Several years ago, while editing our book on American ballads, The Rose and the Briar, Greil Marcus and I puzzled over all the graphic and brutal imagery. The traditional ballad format involves scenes and even entire stories heaped one atop the other, sometimes running for dozens of verses, and the turn to something gruesome and tragic amplifies the drama and builds tension. But American murder ballads, in particular, often feature a bloodthirstiness and a darkness of motive—think of “Banks of the Ohio,” think of “Nebraska”—that look like the grotesque flipside of the pursuit of happiness. Whether in a song of homicide or accident, specific grisly details intensify the sadness and the fright. Now Tempest enriches and complicates the ballad tradition—but also it looks inside that tradition, depicting if not completely explaining its torments and mysteries.
The album begins, a bit deceptively, with a jaunty train song. Most American songs about trains fall into one of three basic categories. Disaster songs like “The Wreck of Old 97” describe the bravery and profane folly of men who tempt nature and providence with their fiery engines of iron and steam. (Tempest’s tale of the Titanic is an ocean-bounding version of the same theme.) Other songs celebrate a particular train, like “The Wabash Cannonball,” much as pre-railroad folk songs celebrated race horses. Still other train songs offer a sentimental lament for a departed home or bygone America, like “The City of New Orleans.”
“Duquesne Whistle,” with its bright melody, mostly sounds like the second variety, with a retro tinge of the third—the train whistle is “blowin’ like it gonna blow my blues away,” “blowin’ like my woman’s on board.” Still, if there’s no train wreck, there are ominous rumblings. The singer denies accusations that he is a gambler or a pimp, and then hears the whistle sounding as if it might be on its final run.
The next two tracks change the mood. “Soon After Midnight,” a quiet number with a melody like a ‘50s pop love tune, begins with a wee-hours declaration of love but then presents what sound like the musings of a pathological, misogynist killer. The singer tells us, as if telling us something we didn’t know, that a girl named Charlotte is a harlot who dresses in scarlet; as for the others, “They chirp and they chatter/ What does it matter?/ They’re lyin’ and dyin’ in blood/ Two-timin’ Slim, who’s ever heard of him?/ I’ll drag his corpse through the mud.” On “Narrow Way,” the singer alludes to the New Testament’s injunctions about the narrow path that leads to salvation but also lashes out, “Your father left ya/ Your mother, too/ Even death has washed its hands of you.”
The band sounds loose and disheveled at the opening of the next track but it falls into a biting descending chord progression and suddenly Dylan is declaiming more than he is singing, nailing the lid on a long-dead marriage. And here, plumbing hidden and squandered lives, Tempest comes to emotional life. At the very end, in a rising, gargly voice, Dylan pronounces the song’s bitter title: “Long and Wasted Years.”
“Pay in Blood” is the latest slashing Dylan revenge song, but more graphic and grisly than ever, sung by a man who’s been through hell, warning a bastard who demands respect in a land of ragged beggars and politicians full of piss: “Sooner or later you’ll make a mistake/I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break/Legs and arms and body and bone/I pay in blood but not my own.” Two tracks later, "Early Roman Kings" is a caper of rhyming wordplay—featuring city-destroying “peddlers and meddlers,” “the lecherous and the treacherous” “sluggers and muggers”—strung out against the backdrop blues melody most familiar as Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy.” In Dylan’s song, the “mannish boy” announces (as Woody Guthrie did half a century ago) that he “ain’t dead yet”; and he threatens to break you wide open—with, of all things, his music.
Sandwiched between these two tracks is Dylan’s haunting reconstruction of “Barbara Allen,” one of the album’s most captivating songs. “In Scarlet Town where I was born,” begin both the old ballad and Dylan’s new one, “Scarlet Town”—and before Dylan is done he has quickly retold the aching story: Sweet William died for love in the merry month of May, and the hard-hearted Barbara (who is renamed Mistress Mary) prays and weeps for him as he’d wept for her. But Dylan omits Barbara’s death and burial and the ballad’s mysterious final image of a rose and a briar growing out of the dead hearts and joining in a lover’s knot.
Instead he explores the ballad’s very first mystery, which appears in its first three words: where and what is Scarlet Town? The song, with an ominous dirge-like melody, tours a dreamy, shadowy forlorn place under a hill, a settlement of ivy leaf and silvery thorn, where heaven comes too late, where it seems that something terrible happened once and people now numb themselves, where one man fights lacklove loneliness drinking in a bar with his “flat-chested junkie whore.” Sweet William and his beloved lived in a cursed and dejected place.Yet it is also a place that contains the world's seven wonders, all the human colors, a place you'd never want to leave.
Tempest’s most ambitious songs come as a concluding trio. “Gypsy Davy” is an old ballad, the story of a wife forsaking her husband and children for another man. Dylan begins his version, “Tin Angel,” with another identical first line—“It was late last night when the boss came home”—and, as in “Gypsy Davy,” the boss orders a saddled-up buckskin horse so he can pursue and recapture his wife. But Dylan dramatically slows the musical and narrative tempo. Abandoned by his posse along the way, the boss, his forehead pounding, reaches a well-appointed house, peers inside and sees the couple, naked and entwined. The inevitable confrontation unfolds in extended vicious threats and curses, and the wife delivers the nastiest barb, calling her lover her husband to her husband’s face. The long story ends with a shooting, a stabbing, a suicide, and three more corpses heaped on the ground.
From a love triangle murder ballad, Dylan moves to the Titanic catastrophe. When word first filtered out about “Tempest,” it seemed improbable: Nearly a quarter of an hour of Dylan re-telling a story already made familiar in books and movies as well as songs? But “Tempest” makes good use of every second. Once the scene is set by a woman storyteller on a moonlit night, once the panic sweeps over everyone and the hatches blow, it might as well be the first time we’ve heard about it. The old balladic moral about men’s blasphemous arrogance recurs: The Titanic, all 50,000 majestic tons of her, was intended to usher in a golden new unsinkable mechanical age, as Dylan tells it. But the ship goes under. And it is with its small, specific stories of particular deaths and sacrifices—the poor crippled child, for instance, who gets saved offset by the wealthy, doomed Mr. Astor—that “Tempest” lulls the brain and opens the heart.
After hundreds drown, the album concludes with a solitary murder. Early in 1962, young Dylan sang, on a New York folksong radio show, a tortured lonesome blues called “Roll on John.” The song has a deathly image that would recur, mutated, in Dylan’s music years later—“Don’t the sun look lonesome/on a graveyard fence”—and it tells of a man named John who moved too slow. “Slow down, you’re movin’ way too fast,” Dylan now sings in this “Roll on John,” his elegy to John Lennon. As in “Tempest,” it is the song’s moments of grim specificity that arrest, to the point where we practically feel as well as hear Lennon’s last dying breaths. There is a terrible story at the song’s core, about journeys across the Atlantic, and about taking the road into the land of the buffalo—which might as well be the Dakota—only to be ambushed and shot in the back. Yet the song concludes with borrowings from Blake and the Lord’s Prayer and a final line of devastating decency.
As the envoi of the remarkable, corpse-strewn, blood-drenched Tempest, “Roll on John” completes a dizzying journey through unforeseen death and destruction, and through the hubris, jealousy, and evil that lie behind them: Dylan’s latest reimagining of some of the darkest traditions in American balladry, rendered on every conceivable scale.