Dylan sets sail on his finest album of this century.
By David Fricke.
“They battened down the hatches/But the hatches wouldn't hold,” Bob Dylan sings in the title song of his 35th studio album. Tempest is an epic-ballad account of the sinking of the Titanic, rendered by Dylan in a plaintive growl and ballroom-waltz time and mined with blatant fiction. There was no tempest that night; the Titanic hit the iceberg in clear calm weather. We have no evidence to suggest, as Dylan does, that the doomed passengers turned on each other in homicidal panic. And Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears two minutes into the song's quarter-hour, was only on the Titanic in James Cameron's movie.
But the truth of that lyric blows hard, cruel and constant across Tempest, a 10-song storm of trial, envy, obsession, violent retribution and fatal human error, set on scorched terrain and unforgiving seas. Raw memories and bad dreams are daily bread. Judgment comes to all; and there is no appeal. By the time Dylan set sails in Tempest, the penultimate track, he has promised just deserts in Narrow Road (“If I can't work up to you/You'll surely have to work down to me someday”) and Pay in Blood (“I pay in blood/But not my own”). In Tin Angel, a love triangle ends in two murders and a suicide, like the folk-noir carol Matty Groves with dialogue by James M. Cain.
Soon After Midnight starts like something the high-school Dylan would have played with his Hibbing combo the Golden Chords – a ladies' choice laced with the sweet cries of Donnie Herron's pedal-steel guitar. But then Dylan borrows from Howlin' Wolf (“I've been down on the killin' floors”) and issues his own pregnant warning: “I'm in no great hurry/I'm not afraid of the fury/I've faced stronger walls than yours.” If this is love, it will come dearly.
Tempest is Dylan's fourth album in the late-blooming streak that began with 2001's “Love and Theft” (not counting the spiked eggnog of 2009's Christmas In The Heart). He now makes records the same way he tours – like he's issuing bulletins from one never-ending session of jump blues, clattering boogie and dead-man-walking shuffles, cut in steady circular arrangements with his railroad-groove road band. After four decades of first-take impatience and hit-and-miss confederates, the studio Dylan has turned into AC/DC comfortable and certain in his formula.
Like his last three albums, Tempest is also a feast of one-liners, Dylan working his turf like a stand-up comic in hanging-judge robes. “I ain't dead yet/My bell still rings,” he boasts in Early Roman Kings, a hard-charging spin on Muddy Waters' Mannish Boy, while that third wheel in the Tin Angel triangle is, “a gutless ape with a worthless mind.” It is songwriting as whirlwind, Dylan stitching his rogues and aphorisms together the same way he edited his films Eat The Document and Renaldo And Clara. “Anything goes,” Dylan recently admitted, describing the album to Mikal Gilmore in Rolling Stone. “You just gotta believe it will make sense.”
And it does, for the most elementary and compelling reason: performance. Tempest is Dylan's best musical album of this century, a vibrant maximising of strict rules and the savaged leather state of that voice. He mostly sticks to his small range, in whispered, menacing close-up, and his band – with guitarist Charlie Sexton back in the line-up – kicks and swings with the same articulate focus. Duquesne Whistle opens with a Jimmie Rodgers flair and rolls like a country-Nuggets express; Pay In Blood comes with a gait and kick that evokes the mid-'70s Rolling Stones (specifically Hand Of Fate).
Tempest seems to end like another album altogether. Compared to his thoroughbred finishes on 2006's Modern Times (Ain't Talkin') and '09's Together Through Life (It's All Good), Dylan's Lennon homage Roll On John is an odd way out, the heart-string mandolin, soft funeral organ and a mash-up of fuzzy history, historical references, Beatle lyrics and William Blake. But there is a strong wind of missing too, the frank mourning of a competitive twin. At 71, Dylan is a most remarkable survivor: still standing, working and confounding. But for the last few minutes here, he sound his age: weathered, weary and alone in his tempest.