R.E.M.’s 1992 Automatic for the People classic “Man on the Moon” has been in the news lately, given the recent passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong. For such a great and seemingly almost-universally loved song, the recent spate of attention comes as a reminder how few people, out of the 16 million-plus who bought the album and the many more who’ve heard the track since, really have much idea what Michael Stipe is singing about here. It’s his own private joke, in a way — people believe the moon landing is faked, so why couldn’t comedian Andy Kaufman’s death have been staged, too? — but we don’t need to be in on it to enjoy the song’s graceful, melodic jangle. The first time many people heard it, they probably hadn’t even heard of Kaufman, and that’s OK.
Bob Dylan has been enjoying his own private joke for years now, if not decades, epitomized in recent years with his Victoria’s Secret commercial and stubbornly straight-faced Christmas album. But the cognitive dissonance for Dylan fans has been reaching new levels as the venerable and enigmatic singer-songwriter rolls out his 35th studio album, Tempest, set for September 11. For one thing, he has said the album’s title track, a 14-minute song about the Titanic, will include a nod toward Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Then there’s the matter of his chosen venue for premiering new material, Cinemax: show trailers, end credits, he’s not picky, as long as he can reach us through the premium-cable network often referred to as “Skinemax” for its late-night adult entertainment. (Contrast this approach with Animal Collective, who insisted on being the first to share new album Centipede Hz with listeners.)
All of which seems like an appropriately unhurried way to introduce the video for “Duquesne Whistle,” the first full song to go public from Tempest (via the Guardian). Directed by Nash Edgerton, who as Rolling Stone notes has worked with Dylan before, the clip takes its time, following a young man’s flirtations with a woman on a city street. Dylan is there, walking bemused with a crew. Before it’s all over, though, Edgerton shows off a stunt CV that includes the Matrix movies and the Star Wars prequels.
Through it all, “Duquesne Whistle” plays, a jaunty train song from an alternate era, with earthy Midwestern place names like Carbondale. Dylan’s foggy voice reflects on oak trees and a volatile lover who says he’s a “gambler” and a “pimp,” as the Duquesne whistle rings out “like she never blowed before… like it’s on a final run.” Dylan and his band, too, blow through this vintage Americana folk-blues as if it’s new. And, in the current pop setting, these old-timey roots might as well be. It’s impossible to know what exactly Dylan is on about here, but it’s easy to admire the cool, blank swing in his step. Possibly also relevant, given the Titanic disaster allusions elsewhere on the album: Lightning struck a train in Duquesne, IL, in 1921.