To begin, I want to specify that I am not in this post trying to give an “objective” review of the new Dylan CD, whatever that might look like. I’m not in any case that concerned with intention – what in fact Dylan does or does not mean by his words. It seems in fact to me that someone like Dylan often gets ahold of words, ideas, and phrases that mean far more than he in fact grasps at the time – his genius consists in putting them in even when they don’t make sense to him at the moment.
In any case, I have been puzzling over the CD for a few days now, and trying particularly to figure out what is up with the Christian references. My initial conclusion is that the overarching theme of “Tempest” is the spectacle of tragedy. The CD is, I think, about a postmodern world where tragedy has become entertainment, entertainment has become tragedy, and the difference between them has become hard to discern.
What got me thinking about this in particular is the disjunction between the references Dylan makes. “Narrow Way” is jam-packed with Christian and Biblical references, but how are we to take these, given some of his others? Particularly, I am thinking of the reference to Leo in “Tempest,” a song about the Titanic. It is clearly a reference to the James Cameron film Titanic, and this reference makes the sinking of the Titanic sound rather bathetic; we can’t, in fact, tell whether he is talking about an event where many people died, or a film that won a number of Oscars. But I think this is the problem the CD is getting at: in modern society, it is hard to know where tragedy ends and spectacle begins.
Perhaps even more alarmingly, tragedy, evil, and sin have become casual and commonplace, amusing things to pass one’s time. There are some chilling lines delivered in a fairly sing-song way. For instance: “Two timin’ slim/whose ever heard of him/I’ll drag his corpse through the mud,” or the line where the speaker gleefully notes that his enemy fell into the dust, lost his lust, and broke apart because he had an iron heart. At one point, the speaker says his “heart is cheerful, never fearful;” it is an innocuous enough line until one gets to the following line -“I’ve been to the killing floors.” We live in a society where people can commit mass murder and then sleep soundly at night.
The theatrical theme continues with “Pay in Blood,” which speaks in the voice of a very stock, painted kind of devil – nothing clever or sophisticated, but the kind of devil who is red and has horns and a pitchfork tail. “Early Roman Kings” also, I think, obliquely references a world that can be easily depicted in large figures drawn in artificial drama. The villains are stock villains and the heroes are stock heroes, and we judge them as we would a play rather than reality. Indeed, it is this theatricality that I think is referenced in the album and song’s title, for the Shakespearean Tempest is all about theatricality; things that some characters think of as happenstance – particularly the tempest itself – is artificially controlled by Prospero the magician. We are never really terrified or anxious in the play in the same way that we might be in, say, Hamlet, because we accept its events as grounded in illusion and artifice – the stakes are not high enough. And through this metaphor Dylan points to the very heart of a postmodern society. There is nothing we take seriously, death, or life, or evil, or good, or anything. Everything is a construct, and no one is playing for stakes. People in the past used to take such things seriously; for us they are a form of entertainment that we yawn at.
But there is a price. Prospero must break his staff and declare this thing of darkness his own. And I think this is what Dylan does in Tin Angel. In this bloody love ballad that ends in murder and suicide Dylan points us to the love story that typifies our age – we kill others and then kill ourselves. We act like we have run away for love, but have really run away for nothing except diversion, and so we kill.
But we don’t like to think of this, so we distract ourselves – with the peppiness of a song like “Duquesne Whistle,” or the superabundant sentimentality of “Roll On John,” a tribute that I am not sure we should take seriously. By the time we have reached the line “Tiger, tiger you burned so bright,” we wonder if John Lennon is really here honored, or rather being slyly mocked. When you imagine there’s no heaven or hell, you don’t get a tragic humanism, but rather a world where people make paper heavens and hells and play at being paper gods and paper heroes – Lennon is, we might say, himself papered over with recycled lines from Blake and a sentimentalism that is the tonal opposite yet the exact product of Lennon’s bleak perspective.
Curiously enough, I think the whole moral core of the CD is found in Scarlet Town. It conveys the life of the worldly weary, where good and bad exist side by side, and we are all in relationships with our sinful addicted selves, our junkie whores. But there is the potential for salvation. The key to this song is the lines that say, “If love is a sin, beauty is a crime,/all things are beautiful in their time.” The statement is conditional, and therefore not categorically true. But if we are referring to a world that perfect love could enter only to be crucified, we can see how, from that perspective, love is indeed the greatest of crimes. The reference to all things being beautiful in their time is of course from the world-weary Ecclesiastes, and Dylan captures this passage perfectly. It is something to look forward to, but there is a lot of stuff between now and perfection – our flat chested junkie whore is insistent, and pardon us if we don’t break out in spontaneous fanfare.
This glimpse into something more earnest is just for a moment – it is only ever for a moment on this CD – and it is like the others soon lost amidst the world of artifice and theatricality. As always, Dylan shows himself to be an astute critic of culture; I would say that the way he captures postmodernism reminds me of the way he captured the mood of the sixties, but I wasn’t there, so I can’t comment. I don’t know if such perception is exactly what he intended to do with this new CD, but I can’t help but wonder if there is not something very deliberate in his exploration of tragedy and spectacle; the CD was, after all, released on 9/11.