3 ½ stars (out of 4)
“Tempest,” the 35th album of Bob Dylan’s illustrious career, finds the 71 year old obsessing over death — just rarely his own.
He watches a man bleed out from a bullet wound on “Tin Angel” and takes the form of the Angel of Mercy on the bluesy “Early Roman Kings,” singing, “I can strip you of life/Strip you of breath/Ship you down to the house of death.” Then there’s the 14-minute title track, which details the sinking of the Titanic in graphic fashion, Dylan croaking about “dead bodies…floating” in the frozen water as the body count ticks well over 1,600.
Even in those songs were no corpses turn up, the specter of death lurks. On “Soon After Midnight,” a lilting country soul number, the singer courts romance, prodding a would-be paramour by singing, “It’s now or never/More than ever,” a thinly-veiled reminder of his declining years.
Elsewhere, Dylan embodies hardscrabble characters that traverse the harsh landscape like characters turned loose from Cormac McCarthy novels. On the biblical “Narrow Way” he portrays a solitary man wandering the desert “armed to the hilt,” like Moses as seen through the lens of Sergio Leone. “Pay In Blood” is equally foreboding, Dylan singing from the point-of-view of a murderous bandit (“I pay in blood, but not my own”) in a gravelly voice as gnarled and knotted as an ancient oak.
While Dylan makes vague references to living through hell on “Pay In Blood,” he more explicitly spells out his pains on “Long and Wasted Years,” a calloused tune about a failed relationship that plays like a musical companion to Ingmar Bergman’s still-brutal “Scenes From a Marriage.” “It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other,” he sings atop heavy sighs of pedal steel, “When our hearts were true.”
“Tempest,” released on the 50th anniversary of his self-titled 1962 debut, plunges even further into the past for musical inspiration, flirting with the early blues and Americana of the 1940s. The measured “Scarlet Town,” for one, layers on prickly banjo, lonesome violin and a trickle of piano as soft and dainty as a kitten’s footsteps. “Tempest,” by contrast, crackles with life even as Dylan rasps about death, piling on Celtic fiddle, piano and lush strains of accordion — the sound of the band playing on as a ship once thought to be unsinkable ship plunges to its watery resting place.
While Dylan occasionally flashes his more playful, pop-culture obsessed side on the winding tale of the Titanic — how else to explain his mention of “Titanic” star Leonardo DiCaprio? — no such levity can be found on the album closing “Roll On, John.” The mournful tune, which focuses on a single death rather than thousands, is a stirring tribute to late Beatle John Lennon that comes on like a world-weary elegy. “I heard the news today,” sighs Dylan, his mind drifting back in time to Dec. 8, 1980, “Oh boy.”
But even at his advanced age the singer-songwriter doesn’t sound eager to join his musical compatriot. Note the loping “Duquesne Whistle,” where images of the past race by (women, oak trees and entire towns) and Dylan just keeps chugging along, eyes forever fixed on the horizon for whatever might be coming next.