Could this be the last time? The customary intrigue that surrounds the arrival of a new Bob Dylan studio album – and this is his 35th – was stirred by its title: Tempest. Given that The Tempest was Shakespeare's final play, and we know that Dylan is a student of the Bard, could this be the 71-year-old artist's way of telling us that with this record he's calling it quits?
Dylan himself has appeared to pooh-pooh the question, telling Rolling Stone last week: "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." Nonetheless, that same report called the album "dark"; according to the LA Times "a darkness has replaced the instrumental interludes, buoyancy and lightness of his last three albums"; while Billboard in the US said that "death … is a dominant subject on Tempest".
Perhaps, then, there would be some sense of letting go on this album – so it came as a surprise on listening to it in London on Monday that it opens with the jaunty Duquesne Whistle, something like a more rambunctious Nashville Skyline Rag from the 1969 album. Complete with jamming organ and slick guitar licks (shades of Charlie Christian?), the whistle threatens "to blow my blues away".
It's a mood sustained in the gentle Soon After Midnight – "it's soon after midnight and I've got date with the fairy queen … and I don't want nobody but you" – on which some of Dylan's phrasing recalled for me the feeling of Under the Red Sky, the title track on the 1990 album; Narrow Way does carry notes of foreboding, heightened by a line about the British burning down the White House, but since when can you hear Bob Dylan singing about having (as I think I heard it) "a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face" and not laugh, too?
The humour resurfaces throughout the album, with the band – the touring outfit of bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G Receli, steel guitarist Donnie Herron and guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, plus David Hidalgo from Los Lobos on this and that – often entering into the spirit and enjoying themselves. And characteristically, Dylan has chosen to preview Tempest in unconventionally amusing fashion, letting the track Early Roman Kings soundtrack the trailer to a new HBO TV series about terrorism, Strike Back.
The darkness does finally start to descend with the gospel-influenced Pay in Blood ("I pay in blood … but not my own") and Scarlet Town – which is the setting for the Child Ballad Barbara Allen that Dylan has sung throughout his career.
Following what was a single, cursory listen, it's not possible to get fully to grips with that song or the slow-burning Tin Angel or the title track, which lasts almost 14-minutes and tells the story of the sinking of the Titanic over the course of 45 verses. This last is a subject Dylan has touched on previously (in a line on Desolation Row), while several blues and folk songs have tackled it – Richard "Rabbit" Brown's Sinking of the Titanic and the Carter Family's The Titanic among them. Dylan told Rolling Stone his song evolved from fooling around with the melody to the latter, but what we end up with is something on a bigger scale. And just as the 16-minute Highlands from Time Out of Mind namechecked Neil Young and Erica Jong, it's Leonardo DiCaprio who gets a mention here, among a cavalcade of characters.
"People are going to say: 'Well, it's not very truthful,'" Dylan said of the song to Rolling Stone. "But a songwriter doesn't care about what's truthful. What he cares about is what should've happened, what could've happened. That's its own kind of truth.
"It's like people who read Shakespeare plays, but they never see a Shakespeare play. I think they just use his name."
Then finally, there's Roll on John, which digs back into the blues and into William Blake to tell part of the story of John Lennon; it's warm, mysterious and moving – and an excuse to dig out that famous footage of the pair in London taxi cab – with Dylan at one point singing: "I heard the news today, oh boy!"
In terms of the Dylan canon, does it bring to mind the crepuscular menace of Not Dark Yet?. Perhaps it's more Forever Young.
Released on 11 September, the same day as Love and Theft in 2001, and likely his strongest album since then, Tempest also arrives more than 50 years since Dylan's debut.