Bob Dylan has been on the longest streak of critical high rolls in his 50-year career. The raves that began with his first Album of the Year Grammy winner (1997’s Time Out of Mind) and continued through Love and Theft, Modern Times and Together Through Life are unabated with the release of his 35th studio album, Tempest.
Dylan’s latest has received a raft of accolades, from Rolling Stone (hardly unexpected given the magazine’s fawning relationship with the bard) to stand-alone essay status in the latest Time magazine. This 15-year high-water mark eclipses the near eight-year run of greatness from his eponymous 1962 debut until his first misfire, 1970’s Self Portrait.
On Tempest, Dylan, 71, makes the most of his expressive voice — a battered instrument that sounds like a hoarse Fred Sanford after an all-night fight with Lamont. He croaks 10 death-rattled story songs, his enunciation and emotional range, from witty to haunted, nearly flawless.
His subjects range from a fond remembrance of pal John Lennon ( Roll on John) to the title track, a 14-minute, 45-verse, chorus- and bridge-free retelling of the Titanic’s sinking. Particularly on the Titanic treatment, which plays loose with history, name-drops actor Leonardo DiCaprio and goes on for what seems like a real-time reenactment, Dylan could have used a producer who wasn’t afraid to edit the master.
The Irish-themed Tempest dirge repeats its 16-bar, sing-song melody for a numbing quarter-hour, and even Dylan’s poetry isn’t afforded a lifeboat as it heads into an iceberg of throwaway rhymes: “The seas were sharp and clear / Moving through the shadows / The promised hour was near.” Promised hour? Really?
Unlike Paul Simon, a peer from the early days whose music has grown more graceful and worldly, Dylan’s recent albums cling to the same mix of Muddy Waters-inspired blues, Western swing, rock and folk with repetitive arrangements to drive the tunes.
That said, his road band is excellent — listen to the joyful kick it gives the swinging rhythm of the terrific opener, Duquesne Whistle, and the sturdy beat driving the murder ballad Pay in Blood. The feel of the music is as timeless and bracing as the Rolling Stones’ 1972 landmark, Exile on Main Street.
Download: Duquesne Whistle, Pay in Blood.
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