Monday, September 10, 2012

Dylan and Killin' - Wall Street Journal

As it's been with all his late-period full-band albums, Bob Dylan's newest, "Tempest" (Columbia), out Tuesday, is an uneven work whose finest qualities are found in the shadings and subtleties. At its best, it reveals the skills of a master craftsman who uses a variety of American musical forms to create atmosphere in support of his lyrics, which have grown increasingly novelistic and as such are keen-eyed, colorful and effective.

[image]AFP/Getty Images

Bob Dylan performing in Australia last year.

At its worst, "Tempest" is undisciplined and banal, as illustrated by the title track, an almost-14-minute meditation on the Titanic. The song's shifting points of view make it unclear whether the narrator is discussing the ship's sinking or the film about it. (He mentions "Leo," as in Leonardo DiCaprio, without clarifying things.) Curious bookends frame the disc. "Duquesne Whistle" chugs along with a country swing provided by Donnie Herron's fiddle and opens the album with the promise of an upbeat experienceâ€"a false promise, as it turns out: Mr. Dylan and band never revisit the sound. The recording ends with "Roll On John," a tribute to John Lennon that name checks Liverpool and Hamburg and quotes "A Day in the Life" and "Come Together." A whistling pedal-steel guitar mitigates the ponderous tempo, and the song builds nicely to the chorus, but its listlessness and Mr. Dylan's gargle of a vocal undermine the effort.

But there's a bit of magic in "Tempest," and the shift in mood following "Duquesne Whistle" works. Kicking off as a 1950s-style stroll, "Soon After Midnight" lines up as a love songâ€"it opens with "I'm searching for phrases to sing your praises"â€"but it darkens slowly until Mr. Dylan sings: "Two-Timing Slim, who's ever heard of him? I'll drag his corpse through the mud." Soon Mr. Dylan finds his stride as "Tempest" becomes his take on the murder-ballad tradition, an influence in his formative years some five decades ago. He unreels spooky, sometimes gruesome stories that transcend time and place. Featuring roguish characters, they could occur in the Old West, in an industrial center prior to or after World War II, or last week in a dark, anonymous small town.

With George Receli's brushes snapping on the snare drum, "Narrow Way" bounces along amicably, yet the lyrics are anything but pleasant: "I saw you buried and I saw you dug up," Mr. Dylan sings, adding: "Even death has washed its hands of you." The characters have looted and plundered, Mr. Dylan reveals, in a song that's set in a period after 1814 when the British burned the White House. Whether it's shortly thereafter or about 200 years hence doesn't matter here. The yarn is about creeping action and attitude, not history and fact.

The menacing mood continues with "Pay in Blood," a midtempo rocker with a catchy twist under the verses that sets up the chorus: "I pay in blood, but not my own." Mr. Dylan's frog-croak works here, adding to the sinister tone. On "Scarlet Town," his voice is clear and his delivery deliberate, as a fiddle saws and a banjo darts. As the seven-minute song unfolds, the performance grows increasingly ominous. Evil and good take on human form in the town where the narrator was born and a man "fight[s] his father's foes . . . with whiskey, morphine and gin."

In "Tin Angel," the most explicit murder ballad on "Tempest," the band's restrained performance creates a hypnotic backdrop to a bitter conversation among three participants in a strange love triangle. When a woman speaks of one man, the other's retort is harsh: "He's a gutless ape with a worthless mind." A gun is produced, a bullet finds a body; to repair the gaping wound will "take more than a needle and a thread." Mr. Dylan, who sings all three roles in clipped monotone, states: "He was a man of strife, a man of sin. I cut him down." A succeeding line that might be a throwaway or a vital clue heightens the story's graveyard eeriness.

Now 71 years old, Mr. Dylan demonstrates on "Tempest" that he's still fulfilling an early ambition: "You want to say something about the strange things you have seen," he writes in his wonderful 2004 autobiography, "Chronicles, Volume One." With this collection of murder ballads, he does so, enriching his unparalleled catalog with a touch of menace, despite a few bewildering missteps.

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.

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