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Ruggedly poetic, self-indulgent, cryptic and vitriolic

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After a period of inconsistency in the late ’80s and a good portion of the ’90s, Bob Dylan scored a major creative and critical triumph with 1997’s Time Out of Mind. A refrain from that album’s “Not Dark Yet” — “It’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there” — sums up Mind and Dylan’s output ever since, including his latest, Tempest (Columbia), a sublimely dark and rewarding ride for anyone willing to buy a ticket.

Longtime Dylan collaborators Charlie Sexton (guitar) and David Garnier (bass) are joined on Tempest by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos (guitar, accordion, violin) and others to render a rock ‘n’ roll-meets-rhythm and blues dirge composed on scorched earth following a Pyrrhic victory. The souls of the dead rise from the ground in a spirit dance that transfixes the listener, and the musicians all play with mud on their boots.

“Duquesne Whistle” describes a train ushering the narrator to the beyond in a smoky honky-tonk rhythm. “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing/Blowing like it’s gonna kill me dead.” The line “Blowing like she’s at my chamber door,” recalls Edgar Allan Poe‘s famous poem “The Raven.” The raven, rapping at the chamber door, is death. But the final judgment does not appear completely dire. “I can hear a sweet voice gently calling/Must be the mother of our Lord,” is delivered in Dylan’s signature growl. The music bounces along in an almost cheerful manner and makes the song into a wistful contemplation of death.

The bluesy waltz “Soon After Midnight” creates a perfect atmosphere of dread for Dylan’s exercise in ambiguity. Is the narrator a hopeless romantic? “I’ve got a date with a fairy queen.” Or is he a stalker looking to murder a rival? “My heart is cheerful/It’s never fearful/I’ve been down on the killing floors.”

“Narrow Way” is an up-tempo country-rock tune that references the War of 1812. “Ever since the British/burned the White House down/There’s a bleeding wound/in the heart of town.” Other lines such as “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday” and “It’s a long road/It’s a long and narrow way” seem to encompass the convoluted state of today’s political atmosphere. As with many songs here the music has a way of giving grim subject matter a wink and a grin.

In “Long and Wasted Years,” a tale of remorse, Dylan is bent on confession. Some of the lines used in this song, particularly “Shake it up baby/Twist and shout,” are one of many incongruous and perplexing nods to other artists (and events) on this album.
“Early Roman Kings” is another song about mortality and hard times: “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings,” Dylan croons despairingly. “They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers/They buy and they sell/They destroyed your city/They’ll destroy you as well.” Was the songwriter reading up on Bain Capital when he wrote this?
“Tin Angel” is a meditation on murder and death involving a love triangle that could have been imagined by either H.P. Lovecraft or Poe. “She put the blade to her heart and she ran it through/All three lovers together in a heap/Thrown into the grave/forever to sleep.” Dylan offers no respite from the dark obsessions of the heart.

It takes a degree of stamina to sit through the funereal and surreal 14-minute title tune, “Tempest.” The song concerns the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912; but it also strangely echoes James Cameron‘s film version of the event. If this is a grand metaphor about the demise of America, it certainly strains one’s patience. The alternate reality that Dylan has constructed here is like an interminable dream one is trying to wake up from. This is the weakest cut on the disc, but it is not without humor or merit.

“Roll On John,” one of Dylan’s best recent compositions, closes the album like the door of a funeral parlor after the mourners have left. It’s a moving tribute to John Lennon that contains many allusions to Lennon’s life and The Beatles. “I heard the news today, oh boy … Now the city’s gone dark/There is no more joy.” The chorus is like a prayer in stone: “Shine your light/move it on/you burn so bright/roll on John.”

Ruggedly poetic, self-indulgent, cryptic and vitriolic, Tempest is another journey into the labyrinth of Dylan’s mind. The controversy surrounding his originality and the polarity between Dylan’s hard-core fans and his skeptics are enough to keep musicologists and lawyers busy for generations. If “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” as the designer Coco Chanel once said, then the 71-year-old Dylan seems to have taken this sentiment to heart. If so, his musical cross-pollinations have produced some of the finest hybrids in popular music history.

— By Donald Gavron