BOB DYLAN 'Tempest' (Columbia)
3 1/2 stars = Very good
The best thing I've read about the new Bob Dylan album so far was a reader comment on the Rolling Stone site that said, "That Bob Dylan is still with us and still creating and re-creating, looking back, looking forward, and frankly not giving a damn what anyone thinks is, for me, a cause to rejoice."
Amen to that.
That Dylan continues to create with such fervor and write so provocatively on his 35th album, at 71, is nothing short of a marvel, particularly in light of all the other geniuses who flamed out early.
"Tempest" is the fourth in a line of albums starting with "Love and Theft" (9-11, 2001) that found the bard indulging his sweet tooth for early 20th-century forms of swing, jazz and blues. It's not what we signed on for with either "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" or "Bringing it All Back Home," but it is what it is. The senior citizen Dylan, in his throwback cowboy suits, fancies himself a troubadour of the pre-rock, pre-'60s folk era.
By now we know the voice -- one of the most brilliant, peculiar and iconic instruments on Earth -- is somewhat ravaged by the endless touring, smoking and what have you. We can say "somewhat" because it sounds like during the recording of this album Dylan had his good days and those when you wish you could grab him, pat him and shake him till his throat clears -- or at least give him the day off.
However he sounds, we can say with confidence that Dylan hasn't spilled this much blood on the page (or the tracks) in ages. It all starts quite jauntily enough with the happy swing of "Duquesne Whistle," but soon enough, on "Soon After Midnight," he's singing about dragging someone's corpse through the mud -- on a love song.
He moves on to the rollicking blues of "Narrow Way" which has him "armed to the hilt," but not unscarred, and looking to bury his head in the breasts of "a heavy stacked woman." "Long and Wasted Years," a talk-sung piece that harks back to "Knocked out Loaded," is a brutal lament, with the lines "I ain't seen my family in 20 years/That ain't easy to understand, they may be dead by now/I lost track of 'em after they lost their land" and "I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/There are secrets in 'em that I can't disguise."
"Pay in Blood," delivered with the most harrowing growl, dispenses with subtlety and gets right down to nasty with "This is how I spend my days/I came to bury, not to praise/I'll drink my fill and sleep alone/I pay in blood, but not my own."
Rolling into what would be side two we visit a village from hell in "Scarlet Town" ("Desire"-like, with the violin of David Hidalgo), play witness to a murder-suicide on "Tin Angel" and take a bizarre trip on the Titanic in the plodding 14-minute, 45-verse title track. On the closing "Roll on John," the slain Beatle is equated to a slave brought here and sacrificed on our streets.
It's powerful stuff. And it could have been better. If there's a problem with "Tempest," it's that his alter-ego, Jack Frost, is less brilliant as a producer. Too often, the music finishes where it starts with no buildup of drama. I shudder to think what "Blonde on Blonde" would have sounded like with Mr. Frost at the controls.
In spite of that, it's Dylan, still on the razor's edge -- and for that we rejoice.