Dylan’s 35th studio album makes for compulsive listening.
Tempest comprises ten often hypnotic songs traversing the musical territory of blues, country, folk and riff-driven R&B, graced with haunting melodies and Dylan’s trademark brilliant lyrics.
Like poems, Dylan’s songs tend to resist translation into explanatory language, but the themes evoked here include all the big ones: love, fear, rage and death. Songs such as “Soon After Midnight” feel intimate and confessional while others, such as “Tin Angel”, are convoluted, mesmerising tales of archetypal characters. The title song itself is a 14 minute, Celtic-influenced waltz that recounts the sinking of the Titanic with surreal vividness.
Moods encompass the jaunty (“Duquesne Whistle”), the darkly humorous (“Long And Wasted Years”), the grim (“Pay In Blood”) and the despairing, as in “Scarlet Town”: “I touched the garment/But the hem was torn/In Scarlet Town/Where I was born.”
The CD’s final track, “Roll On John”, eulogises John Lennon utilising Beatles’ song lyrics and a benediction derived from William Blake: “Tyger, tyger burning bright/I pray the Lord my soul to keep/In the forests of the night/Cover him over and let him sleep.”
Lyrically, Dylan continues to dazzle, conjuring images and rhymes with extraordinary dexterity. A verbal magician — a Prospero to this Tempest — his lyrics both confound and reveal with the mysterious logic of a Zen koan.
Dylan’s voice may be croaky but it remains an incredibly expressive instrument: reflective, passionate, sly or tender. His distinctive intonation and actor’s sensibility allow him to tease each nuance of meaning from a line and make even his most poetic language seem conversational and spontaneous.
The CD features Dylan’s highly praised backing band, including Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball on guitar and Donnie Herron on steel guitar, banjo, violin and mandolin.
Dylan is now 71 years old, but clearly not content to live off the remarkable artistic achievements of his past fifty years. In an era of remakes and tribute bands he remains fiercely creative. As he declares in Early Roman Kings: “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings…”
Amen to that.