After a few listens, 'Tempest' is starting to reveal itself as a more coherent and considered album than anything Dylan has come up with for decades. Thematically, its overarching concern is man's troubled journey towards oblivion. Yes, it's a 'death' album, but it's also a much more creative and poetic response to the theme than the doomy grumbling on 1997's 'Time Out of Mind'.
The obvious metaphor for our journey towards nemesis is the Titanic's doomed voyage on the title track, and this track is certainly the lynch-pin that holds the album together. But the Titanic's is not the only fatal Atlantic crossing on the album. 'Roll On John' ruminates on John Lennon's ill-fated passage across the sea from England; likewise in 'Narrow Way' the British cross the sea to inflict a "bleeding wound" on Washington by burning down the White House (a bleeding wound that is recalled by Leo's bleeding arm in 'Tempest'). There are other journeys too, similarly heading towards disaster. The Boss in 'Tin Angel' travels out to surprise his wife in flagrente, only for all three of the love-triangle to end up dead. Even the jaunty 'Duquesne Whistle' is from a train that's "on its final run", and whose eponymous whistle makes a sound as though "the sky's gonna blow apart" - just like "the universe opening wide" on 'Tempest' as the ship begins to sink. All through the album, Dylan seems to take grim delight in reminding us that we're all holding a one way ticket and, like the captain of the Titanic, when we stare the compass in the face, "the needle is pointing down". The agents of death are often occluded. There's no iceberg mentioned in the title song; likewise there's no namecheck for Chapman in 'Roll on John'. On 'Tempest', its seems, it's doom alone that counts.
If that's not enough bad news, Dylan has even colder comfort for us. The pleasures of the flesh are fleeting, transient, and maybe not really pleasures at all. 'Scarlet Town', with its "flat chested junkie whores", is a red-light district straight out of the mind of Hieronymous Bosch. 'Pay in Blood' has Dylan making love to "a bitch and a hag"; 'Long and Wasted Years' writes off the comfort of long-term relationships ("so much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years"), while the genuinely sexy sex that's hinted at in 'Tin Angel' ends in an inevitable bloodbath. In fact, transactional sex is quite a preoccupation on this album (too much life on the road, Bob?). We meet Charlotte the Harlot in 'Soon After Midniight' and Davy the brothel-keeper and his girls are among the Titanic's victims in 'Tempest'. "You may say I'm a pimp .. but I'm not", Bob reminds us on 'Duquesne Whistle'. But human blood will have its way: "I'm going to have to bury my head between your breasts", Dylan leers lasciviouly on 'Narrow Way'. 'Soon After Midnight' seems more romantic at first listen ("I've got a date with the fairy queen"), but it's maybe even darker. Who exactly is the narrator meant to be? Maybe there's a clue in 'Tempest', where "the veil was torn asunder between the hours of 12 and 1" - soon after midnight, in other words. Maybe the narrator on 'Soon After Midnight' is the Grim Reaper himself?
If there's no redemption in love and sex, it seems there's nothing for it for us poor mortals but to brutalise and violate each other while we make our brief voyage aboard the Ship of Fools. The many images on 'Tempest' of "brother turning against brother" are repeated in the scenes of violence and bloodletting that permeate the whole album. It's completely the Hobbes vision of man's life: nasty, brutish and short. Meanwhile political elites from the Early Roman Kings down through to the Sicilian Mafia are busy "pumping out the piss". Dylan's cynicism, contempt and despair for the world seem bottomless. Even God's will appears fathomless and arbitrary: "there is no understanding for the judgement of God's hand". "The angels turn aside" from the reaper's work on the Titanic, and in 'Pay in Blood' even death washes its hands of mankind.
The emptiness is endless? Maybe not. Bob has commented in interviews that he originally wanted to make a religious album, and maybe nested inside 'Tempest' there's still a hope of Christian salvation for the doomed of the world. There's certainly plenty of bread and wine scattered through the lyrics, not to mention blood and water. And ultimately perhaps it's only the blood of Christ that can redeem mankind from the apocalyptic horrors of the world, which 'Tempest' enumerates with such grim relish. Maybe that's why the narrator of 'Pay In Blood' is so cocksure and confident and he surveys the valley of death: his sins have already been redeemed by Jesus' ultimate sacrifice. He pays in blood, but not his own.
Of course, I could be barking up all sorts of wrong trees here. But that's half the fun of having a new Dylan album to grapple with. And, by any measure, 'Tempest' is a fine late-Dylan album. It stands shoulder to shoulder with 'Modern Times' and "Love and Theft" as a career-enhancing piece of work. It's extraordinary that Dylan is still creating at all in 2012. It's beyond extraordinary that he's still producing work of this calibre. Roll on, Bob!