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Fifty years into his career, Bob Dylan still surprises

Dylan's latest album, Tempest, reviewed.

Bob Dylan
Columbia, £8.99

Dylan fans have invented some amusing parlour games. One is “Guess That Song” from the strange, incomprehensible soup of his live performance. Another is keeping a running tally of the characters who pop up in his lyrical hall of fame. Over the years that exotic rogues’ gallery has included Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Cecil B DeMille, F Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Revere, Ma Rainey, Shakespeare, Einstein, Casanova, Neil Young and, astonishingly, Alicia Keys.

On Tempest (Columbia, £8.99), his 35th studio album, there are two more unlikely entries. The first is Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears in the title track, a 14-minute saga about the Titanic. The second is John Lennon in “Roll On John”, a hair-raisingly odd song in which naive fan poetry (“another day in the life/On the way to your journey’s end”) blends with an abstract study of American guilt and Lennon becomes an African slave, bound and gagged, sailing across the sea.

It’s wheels within wheels. The Titanic was an epic image in 1965’s “Desolation Row” (“Praise be to Nero’s Neptune/The Titanic sails at dawn”) and Dylan’s Lennon – “you burn so bright” – turns into William Blake’s tiger. You’re in at the deep end again, trying vainly to work out why Leo and John? What does he mean? It’s a game the author sees no sense in playing: asked recently about people’s obsession with analysing his layers of meaning, he said: “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of the answers myself.”

Whatever, there’s a direct relationship between difficulty and vitality in Dylan’s work. The 2009 album, Together Through Life, felt weirdly static somehow – a lot of creative ideas were hemmed in by blues pastiches and straight love lyrics, and even the antique musical settings seemed to lock each song down within its own sepia-tinged, imaginary world.

Tempest is different – destabilising, disorientating, dazzling. It’s from the same musical palette he’s been exploring since the “comeback” trilogy Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times (rich American roots, from creaky delta blues to juke joint swing, under the musical direction of his longtime bassist, Tony Garnier) but there’s something else going on here, too. The voice is startlingly close-miked and more urgent than it’s sounded in years, as if primed to deliver a few shocks.

The first three tracks are hot-blooded, reasonably coherent stories of love and deliverance – the throbbing train song “Duquesne Whistle”; the fairytale “Soon After Midnight” (which sets Edward Lear’s meters against the broken chords of “Unchained Melody”) and “Narrow Way”, which declares: “I’m gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts.” Then, half way through the blues lullaby “Long And Wasted Years” we are cast out, blinking, into a desert landscape of twisted metal and bright light, with a disembodied voice crying, “What are you doing out there in the sun anyway?/Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out?”

The bold, modernist refractions of different voices and historical settings continues through “Early Roman Kings” to the riveting “Tin Angel”, which follows an ancient king, with his buckskin and his ladies, into a symbolic, three-way suicide: “He leaned down and cut the electric wire/sat into the flames and snorted the fire.” It’s as dislocating as the time-travel in 1965’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, where he tore a parking ticket from the mast of the Mayflower.

Set against the faceless, vaguely masonic agents of power on Tempest, the title song about the Titanic is surprisingly light – a sea shanty full of bathos and deadpan humour: “Leo said to Cleo, I think I’m going mad/But he’d lost his mind already, whatever mind he had . . .”

Dylan has denied any direct connection between his album and Shakespeare’s last play (“That was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain Tempest,” he said.) But whether or not this is his own swansong, there’s reason to compare it with that older swashbuckling, baroque wonder, which one scholar once called “an echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs”.

Prospero was Shakespeare’s study of the great magical mind in old age, throwing all he had into one last vision for Miranda – the highbrow, the lowbrow, the politics, the masques and the fairies. Tempest could be Dylan’s own creative sign-off. When you get to your 35th record, in your 50th year of recording, I rather imagine the only person your music is intended to amuse is yourself. So if John Lennon turns into William Blake’s tiger, who then sets out on the range “where the buffalo roam” – well, perhaps it’s not so hard to understand why them, and why now, after all.

Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide