Two-timing Slim / Who’s ever heard of him? / I’ll drag his corpse through the mud
When you reflect that the corpse in all human history most infamously dragged through the mud is Hector, and that Bob Dylan here in “Soon After Midnight,” the second track on his new album Tempest may be quietly referencing The Iliad; you begin to grasp how his hard and earthy verse, set to the pleasing beats and melodies of the country-blues — Appalachia to the Rockies America — is a real triumph.
I’m sworn to uphold / The Laws of God / You can put me out in front / Of a firing squad
That’s from perhaps the standup track, “Pay in Blood,” a song featuring a chorus so obviously Christian only a popular music critic could miss it:
I pay in blood / But not my own
Meanwhile, in “Duquesne Whistle” Bob Dylan’s ruined voice manages occasionally to resemble an aged Louis Armstrong, toiling gamely alongside an upbeat facsimile of something out of the 1930s or 40s. His voice, to put it diplomatically, may want for real range and tonality; but his band has always compassed musicians of depth, richness and talent. The fact that every listener kind of feels like he could sing Dylan songs better than the man himself conveys part of the charm.
The title track is longer than it should be, but still packs a punch, weaving arresting imagery against a backdrop of Irish rhythm. It’s a narrative of the sinking of the Titanic, alternately moving, appalling and humorous.
There are a couple tracks characterized by a voice so harsh and gravelly we might as well classify them as hip-hop: tight beats, suggestive strings, sharp-tongued invective. Just leave aside that they are delivered by a 71-year-old American Christian of Jewish descent rather than a young black man. Among these is “Tin Angel,” another gritty narrative song detailing betrayal and murder. This album is at least PG-13 and probably rated R. (Quick dilation: My 5-year-old has inevitably heard the Zac Brown Band song “Toes,” a party tune that commences with the lines “I got my toes in the water / my [donkey] in the sand / not a worry in the world / a cold beer in my hand” — pure pop-country banality, right? Well my dear girl, God bless her, was discovered recently singing it quietly to herself with the line changed to “pants in the sand.” What marvelous bowdlerization!)
Anyway, Bob Dylan takes his cue from Scripture that it is not always wrong to talk truly and brutally about the squalor and sins of man. Have a look at Amos 2:7. That minor prophet’s excoriation of Israel’s transgressions was read this summer as the morning Scripture in my church, before the children had left for Sunday school. I felt a strong urge to cringe. That “to go” verb could be translated more colorfully, I suspect.
Now Bob Dylan is very far from being even the most minor prophet. He’s troubadour, a poet mixed with a performer mixed with a prankster. His silent sneers at the man who lately interviewed him for Rolling Stone evidence the latter role in abundance.
The verbal jocularity of Tempest is everywhere present. Sometimes it fails miserably; more often it succeeds or innovates. It praises fleeting things, and vituperates against the injustice and degradation that makes them fleeting. It japes and cackles. Not infrequently it intimates a contempt for the audience so palpable it oozes.
Nevertheless, Dylan’s songs concede in the end (by their very existence) that we’re authorized to love fleeting things. We’re authorized by a God who Himself entered the squalid world and wept over the squalid city of Jerusalem. We’re authorized by the God who positively commanded the Exiles to “seek the welfare of the [squalid] city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” — the city to which they arrived as the most squalid of slaves.
We pay in blood, but not our own.