Bob Dylan is 71 now, an elder statesman for sure, but he's sounded like an old man for decades. I'm not talking about his zombie bullfrog holler; it's more his wistful, mournful outlook. On 1997's Time Out of Mind, the singer was already peering at life's last page: "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." On the new Tempest, a mesmerizing record in stores today, the man's doomsaying has reached downright Titanic levels — literally.
Blood, bad love and a big sinking ship dominate the 10-track Tempest, Dylan's 35th studio album, the last will and testament of a gunfighter with one left in the chamber. Critics are calling it "one of his best," which, to be honest, they've done for every one of his LPs save for a few '80s phone jobs. Solid, if not sensational, Dylan albums (see 2006's Modern Times, 2009's Together Through Life) often have classic status slobbered upon them.
But Tempest really is special: relentless, gritty, and maybe Dylan's catchiest album in a while. It keeps you guessing, off-balance, opening with the old-timey swing of Duquesne Whistle, a total feel-good fake-out, the kind of Americana twirl a straw-hatted Dylan and his bandmates (bassist Tony Garnier, guitarist Charlie Sexton, accordionist David Hidalgo) churn out with ease.
The next cut, Soon After Midnight, is darker, delivered with Dylan's clearest croon in years, reminiscent of Lay Lady Lay. "I'm in no great hurry / I'm not afraid of your fury / I've faced stronger walls than yours." Love might kill him, but man, it does wonders for his voice.
The album then wanders down an increasingly fiendish path, murderous and macabre. The pounding Southern blues of Narrow Way gives way to the crumbled relationship in Long and Wasted Years. On the political Pay in Blood, his voice returns to guttural tatters, as if he gargled with thumbtacks before the take. The electrified folk of Tin Angel is a seriously nasty story song that meanders to a Tarantino finish.
The final two tracks also deal with our mortal coils, and yet Dylan paints in a more hopeful light here, perhaps to ease both our deathly worries and his own. The penultimate cut is a 14-minute Celtic waltz that tells the story — or stories, real and fanciful — of the RMS Titanic's colossal sinking. Fact blurs with fiction, John Jacob Astor crossing paths with "Leo" DiCaprio. And yet the ending, like all of our endings, remains the same: "When the Reaper's task had ended / Sixteen hundred had gone to rest / The good, the bad, the rich, the poor, the loveliest and the best." Later Dylan adds the gutpunch: "There is no understanding / For the judgment of God's hand."
That's a wow moment, but hold on: The denouement, Roll on John, is one of the most jarring moments in Dylan's catalog. It's almost too intimate, especially from an artist who's always hidden behind lyrical sleight of hand. "I heard the news today, oh boy," he sings on the slow rock ode to late friend John Lennon. There's no telling when Dylan wrote this, how long he's been holding onto it, but it's heart-breakingly clear he feels an intense brotherly bond with Lennon, a man who's been equally canonized and criticized: "They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth / Wasn't no way out of that deep dark cave." The song, and the album, ends with a lyrical ride into the sunset, all of Dylan's fear and sadness and worry on his new album finally giving way to peace of mind: "Shine your light, move it on, you burn so bright, roll on John."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.