Bob Dylan‘s impressive 35th studio album, “Tempest,” arrives in the 50th year of his recording career. Rootsy and stylistically broad, Dylan reaches back to the styles that inspired him early on — American and British folk music, story songs filled with history and tragedy, the blues and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. “Tempest” (Sept. 11) is full of songs about families, societies and relationships crumbling, the glimmer of hope that the new day will bring about change and, in the end, a tribute to John Lennon.
The grandfatherly growl in his voice has deepened, his writerly abilities sharp in their intensity as he tackles, more than any other subject, mortality. Fans of the wordplay and stories on his acoustic gem “John Wesley Harding” may well find “Tempest” in league with that album. He has crafted a centerpiece track in “Tempest” about the sinking of the Titanic in which he assumes the combination role of town crier and poet laureate.
The 10 songs here suggest that Dylan is not all that keen on times and things changin’. The songwriting has nods to Woody Guthrie, murder ballads, Muddy Waters, Jimmie Rodgers and the English ballad tradition; the production – handled by his alias Jack Frost – has the airiness of a jazz or folk record from the early 1960s.
His working band, guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G. Receli and string player Donnie Herron, get an able assist from Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo.
1. Duquesne Whistle
A gentle pedal steel opens the album, sounding a bit country and a bit Hawaiian as if recorded during the early days of the island’s statehood. From there, “Duquesne Whistle” chugs full bore into a train song with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter providing the words. (Dylan handles the lyrics on all the other tracks.) It’s a buoyant opener.
2. Soon After Midnight
Dylan’s ability to mash-up varied styles with no cultural or geographic connections shows up once again. A ballad for the lovelorn, Dylan’s “Midnight” is simultaneously a Bronx street corner with a doo-wop act and a Bakersfield honky-tonk at closing time. Lyric of note: “I’m searching for phrases/to sing your praises.”
3. Narrow Road
For years of the Never Ending Tour, nary a set list didn’t include “Silvio.” This grinding, riff-driven blues — a four note motif played on fiddle and electric guitar — carries on the tradition of “Silvio,” “Drifter’s Escape” and “Highway 61 Revisited.” Lyric of notes: “If I can’t work up to you/you’ll surely have to work down to me someday” and “Your father left you, your mother too/Even death has washed his hands of you.”
4. Long and Wasted Years
Dylan talk sings his way through a broken relationship that plays out over a repeated seven note descending scale on electric guitar. A lesser track, but it does have a lyric of note: “I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes/There’re secrets in them I can’t disguise/Come back, baby/If I hurt your feelings, I apologize.”
5. Pay in Blood
The sort of pop-rock song that makes Dylan unique, not unlike “Mississippi” from 2001’s “Love and Theft.” It’s the album’s one song with a harder edge, taking bits from the Warren Zevon songbook to craft a solid hook. Lyric of note: “I pay in blood/but not my own.”
6. Scarlet Town
“Scarlet Town” is no place to be right now or, as Dylan puts it, is “under the hill.” The song starts gloomy and gets worse — banjo is the lead accompaniment with a fiddle enhancing the grayness that permeates “Scarlet Town.” As Dylan’s story songs go, this is among his most accomplished – vivid and richly detailed with instrumentation that sublimely reinforces the lyric. Lyric of note: “Put your heart on a platter and see who’ll bite/See who’ll hold you and kiss you good night/There’s walnut groves and maple wood/In Scarlet town crying won’t do you no good.”
7. Early Roman Kings
Amid the gloom and doom, Dylan has some fun with a 12-bar Tex-Mex blues chock full of metaphors. Lyric of note: “I ain’t dead yet/My bell still rings/I keep my fingers crossed/like early Roman kings”
8. Tin Angel
Garnier’s upright bass is pronounced throughout “Tempest,” never more so than on “Tin Angel,” a song with the tempo of a ticking clock set by banjo and a snare drum. The subtle modulation in the folky tune, allowing the bass to add depth and complement the sternness of Dylan’s protagonist, a man fed up with his lover’s double-crossing ways. At the end of seven minutes and 28 verses, three people are dead and buried. “You had your way too long with me/ Now it’s me who’ll determine how things shall be/’Try to escape,’ he cussed and cursed/’You’ll have to try to get past me first’.”
Ambitious, successful and absolutely startling – nearly 14 minutes long with almost 50 verses and no chorus, Dylan tells the story of the “Titanic” sinking by rhyming every other line as if a New York newspaper had hired him to set the story to meter 100 years ago. He even includes an artist named Leo. Lyric of note: “Dave the brothel keeper/Came out, dismissed his girls/Saw the water getting deeper/Saw the changing of his world.”
10. Roll on John
“Shine your light” is the start of the chorus in Dylan’s tribute to the former Beatle. He references the Quarrymen, “A Day in the Life,” the Cavern and “The Ballad of John and Yoko” blending the physical and the conceptual in a way that does not quite gel. The sentiment is wonderful — “You burn so bright/Roll on, John” — so it’s hard to quibble, but at the end the song lacks the clarity of “Tempest’s” best songs, not to mention the songs of Lennon.