Bob Dylan's seemingly endless Titanic song: 4 talking points

The 14-minute track on the legendary singer's new album, which includes bizarre references to Leonardo DiCaprio, has many critics scratching their heads

"The Tempest"
(Image credit: Barnes & Noble)

Bob Dylan's 35th studio album, Tempest, was released this week, earning generally positive reviews for the 71-year-old music legend. But in one odd track, Dylan's famously inscrutable lyrical style has been applied to a surprising new subject: the Titanic. (Listen to the song below.) Tempest features 10 new songs, but critics have zeroed in on the title track, a 14-minute story-song about the ill-fated journey of the Titanic that even includes references to Leonardo DiCaprio: "Leo took his sketchbook/He was often so inclined/He closed his eyes and painted/The scenery in his mind." (Dylan on DiCaprio in an interview with Rolling Stone: "I don't think the song would be the same without him. Or the movie.") Here, four talking points on Dylan's polarizing new Titanic song:

1. It's one of Dylan's best songs ever

"Tempest" is "one of the most extraordinary compositions from the most acclaimed songwriter of the rock era," says Randy Lewis at the Los Angeles Times. Dylan finds a new take on the familiar Titanic story and "allows the facts to take on a different, deeper resonance than just hearing them dryly recounted." "Tempest" pays homage to the crop of Titanic-themed folk songs that sprang up in the years after the ship sank in 1912, and finds a way to take the story "beyond mere mortal tragedy into the realm of the mythological."

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2. Actually, it's one of his worst

"You'll feel every minute" of Dylan's retelling of the Titanic sinking — and that's not a good thing, says Jim Farber at the New York Daily News. "The essential Titanic tale speaks eloquently of class, cowardice, bravery, and hubris," but Dylan's version of the story, which he sings "without momentum or variation," drags on and on but "adds nothing" to the familiar story. Even for the famously long-winded singer, it's "undisciplined and banal," agrees Jim Fusilli of The Wall Street Journal. And it's not even clear "whether he's discussing the ship sinking or the film about it."

3. It's tough to sit through the whole song

"Tempest" feels endless — but then again, it took the Titanic nearly three hours to sink, so I guess 14 minutes is reasonable," says David Marchese, who live-blogged his first time listening to the song at Spin. But as "Tempest" drones on, it's almost impossible to stay focused: "When someone writes a 14-minute song, do they expect people to pay attention to the whole thing every time through? Do they think about the listener at all? What should I have for lunch today?"

4. Titanic stole from Dylan first

It's easy to laugh at Dylan's decision to include anachronistic references to James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, but he's really just returning the favor, says Dan DeLuca at the Philadelphia Inquirer. After all, the Cameron-penned script "quoted Dylan lyrics such as 'when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose,' even though they were written five decades after the movie was set."

Listen to "Tempest" here:

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