Rolling Stone reported that the fourteen-minute long title track "Tempest" is about the RMS Titanic and includes references to the James Cameron film Titanic (1997). The song "Roll on John" is a tribute to John Lennon. It includes references to some of his songs, including The Beatles' "Come Together" and "A Day in the Life."
The album's title initially spurred rumors that it would be Dylan's final album, based on its similarity to the title of Shakespeare's final play. Dylan later responded: "Shakespeare's last play was called The Tempest. It wasn't called just plain "Tempest". The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It's two different titles."
The cover art for Tempest incorporates a dark red duotone photograph of a statue located at the base of the Pallas-Athene Fountain in front of the Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna. The statue is one of four figures on the intermediate platform of the fountain bowl personifying the main rivers of Austria-Hungary: the Danube, the Inn, the Elbe, and the Moldau. The figure shown on the album cover represents the Moldau. The sculpture was created by Carl Kundmann between 1893 and 1902 based on architect Theophil Hansen's original plans. The photograph was taken by Alexander Längauer from his Shutterstock portfolio, and the package was designed by Coco Shinomiya. As with all Dylan albums of the past 15 years, the packaging features minimal credits and no printed lyrics. The deluxe limited edition CD includes a 60-page notebook of rare vintage magazines with Bob Dylan on frontcover. The covers are from the collections of Magne Karlstad and Oddbjørn Saltnes.
Tempest was released on September 10, 2012, in the United Kingdom and September 11 in the United States. It was announced for release on July 17, 2012 through a press release on Dylan's official web site. The release was issued as a CD and an LP, and as a digital download through online retailers. Various pre-order packages were available from Dylan's official online store including a combined CD/MP3 download of the album, an LP-only version, and two CD/LP bundles including a signature Bob Dylan Hohner harmonica in the different keys and an exclusive 11"x17" poster. A segment of "Early Roman Kings" was featured in a Cinemax commercial for the TV series Strike Back: Vengeance and "Scarlet Town" was featured during the end credits of the first two episodes, both of which aired on August 17, 2012. "Duquesne Whistle", written by Dylan and Robert Hunter, was released as the album's single, along with an accompanying music video; the video was directed by Nash Edgerton, who had directed videos for previous Dylan songs. Rolling Stone wrote that the video "initially seems like a Charlie Chaplin-inspired bit of light comedy", but that it takes a "shockingly dark turn".
Tempest was widely acclaimed by contemporary music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 83, which indicates "universal acclaim", based on 31 reviews. The album is often considered, along with 1997's "comeback album", Time Out of Mind, 2001's "Love and Theft" and 2006's Modern Times, as part of a string of critically acclaimed albums in late-Dylan's catalogue. Some even found it surpassing those other albums, such as Mojo Magazine, who in their review of Tempest opined, "Tempest is Dylan's best musical album of this century, a vibrant maximising of strict rules and the savaged-leather state of that voice." Likewise, Ribofalvin of Tiny Mix Tapes felt that "Tempest's epic scale and grandeur makes his few previous albums look like short stories leading up to a great novel." Rob Brunner, reviewing the album for Entertainment Weekly, felt that "thirty-five albums in, Dylan remains as magical and mysterious as ever."
In his review in Rolling Stone magazine, Will Hermes gave the album five out of five stars, calling it "musically varied and full of curveballs" and "the single darkest record in Dylan's catalog." According to Hermes, the album draws upon elements common throughout Dylan's career—especially the last three albums—with music that is "built from traditional forms and drawing on eternal themes: love, struggle, death." Hermes continues:
Lyrically, Dylan is at the top of his game, joking around, dropping wordplay and allegories that evade pat readings and quoting other folks' words like a freestyle rapper on fire. "Narrow Way" is one of Dylan's most potent rockers in years, and it borrows a chorus from the Mississippi Sheiks' 1934 blues "You'll Work Down to Me Someday". "Scarlet Town" draws on verses by 19th-century Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier; and allusions to Louis Armstrong and the Isley Brothers pop up elsewhere.
A lot of critics praised the album for its dark lyrical nature and roots in "Old Weird America". David Edward expressed this in his review for Drowned in Sound stating, "The coherence of Tempest is the hypnotic key to its charm. Compressed together, the collection exudes a dark flow and a hidden, perilous depth." Likewise, in Magnet Magazine's review of Tempest, they felt that "Dylan has never been more deliberate or so overtly savage." Dougles Helesgrave likewise praised the album for its music sources and dark lyrics, stating:
Tempest is an album that works on many levels. Taken as sound or aural sculpture, the songs take the listener through a dark ramble through the back roads of American popular music. Every musical phrase, note, carries something that suggests more than itself. Each melody is weighed down with memory, reminding the listener of real and imagined pasts, old struggles, hinting that there’s a world rapidly slipping through our fingers, if it’s not already long gone.
In his review for American Songwriter, Jim Beviglia gave the album four and a half out of five stars, calling it "the kind of meaty offering that his most ardent fans desire most." Beviglia notes that the ambitious three-song run concluding the album "should silence any doubts, if they exist, that Dylan is still at the top of his game." "Tin Angel" tells a story of a lovers' triangle that turns into a "Shakespearean body pile, providing plenty of fodder for Dylanologists looking for symbols and hidden meanings." The title track, according to Breviglia, may be a metaphor for how mankind is "headed unknowingly toward an unfortunate fate" with Dylan examining how people react—"some nobly, some horribly, when put to the ultimate test." The closing track, "Roll On John", veers between biographical elements and Lennon song lyrics, presenting what Beviglia calls the "oft-overlooked soft side of Dylan" that is truly touching. Beviglia concludes:
Unlike the Titanic watchman fast asleep at his post, Bob Dylan's eyes are as wide open as ever, even when he's looking back. On this album, he depicts all he sees with his typical insight, dexterity, and honesty, yet he still has ways of doing so that upend all expectations. Tempest is fantastic, but being impressed by Dylan is old hat. That he still finds ways to surprise us is an achievement beyond all comprehension.
In his review in The Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick called the album "among his best ever". According to McCormick, the songs on Tempest reveal a Dylan "genuinely fired up by the possibilities of language" and that the entire album "resounds with snappy jokes and dark ruminations, vivid sketches and philosophical asides." McCormick continued:
Tempest is certainly his strongest and most distinctive album in a decade. The sound is a distillation of the jump blues, railroad boogie, archaic country and lush folk that Dylan has been honing since 2001's Love and Theft, played with swagger and character by his live ensemble and snappily produced by the man himself. A notoriously impatient recording artist, Dylan seems to have found a style that suits his working methods. Drawing on the early 20th-century Americana that first grabbed his attention as a young man (and that he celebrated in his Theme Time Radio Hour shows) and surrounding himself with slick, intuitive musicians capable of charging these nostalgic grooves with contemporary energy, his late-period albums seem a continuation of his tours, as if he rolls right off the stage and into the studio and just keeps rocking.
In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot gave the album three and a half out of four stars, calling it "an inspired mix of blood and bawdiness." Kot called Dylan a "masterful storyteller, by turns murderous, mischievous and tender, sometimes all at once." In his review on Uncut, Allan Jones gave the album ten out of ten stars, calling it "the most far-reaching, provocative and transfixing album of Dylan’s later career. Nothing about it suggests a swansong, adios or fond adieu." In his review in The Gazette, Bernard Perusse gave the album five out of five stars, noting that it "ranks among Dylan's darker works, largely because it has the highest death toll." In his review in the Tampa Bay Times, Sean Daly gave the album an "A" rating, calling it "breathtaking but bleak" and a "mesmerizing record".
In her review for USA Today, Edna Gundersen gave the album four out of four stars, calling it "brilliant". According to Gundersen, Dylan's "peerless powers as a wordplay wizard and consummate storyteller" have not diminished with age, and that Tempest continues in the vein of his recent albums, "steeped in tradition and bent toward blues." Dylan's voice is ideal for these songs, Gundersen noted, whether he's describing a triple murder-suicide in "Tin Angel" or vilifying modern robber barons in "Early Roman Kings". Beneath the humor and mayhem Dylan layers "sexual and political metaphors and bigger truths about human nature, twisted morals, fate and mortality."
Others found the album over-hyped. In his review in The Guardian, Alexis Petridis gave the album four out of five stars, but downplayed some of the superlatives offered by other reviewers who have compared Tempest to some of Dylan's finest work. In his consumer guide for MSN Music, Robert Christgau gave the album a "B+", offering a similar complaint about the "autohype machine" and how some of the reviews were overly positive. Christgau was also unimpressed with the title track and the closing number, which "aim higher with dubious-to-disgraceful results."
Rolling Stone named it the number 4 album of 2012. The magazine also named the song Pay in Blood the 9th best song of 2012.
All tracks written by Bob Dylan except where noted.Bob Dylan – guitar, piano, vocals, production
Tony Garnier – bass guitar
Donnie Herron – steel guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin
David Hidalgo – guitar, accordion, violin
Stu Kimball – guitar
George G. Receli – drums
Charlie Sexton – guitar
William Claxton – back cover photography
Scott Litt – engineering, recording, mixing
Dana Nielsen – recording, mixing
John Shearer – booklet photography
Coco Shinomiya – package design
Shutterstock / A. Längauer – front cover photography
Albert Watson – additional booklet photography