Monday, September 10, 2012

Review: Bob Dylan's 'Tempest' - New York Times

The New York Times

Charlie Sexton and Bob Dylan perform at re-opening night of The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y.

Bob Dylan’s voice isn’t getting any prettier. At 71, on his 35th studio album, “Tempest” â€" and a full 50 years after he released his debut album in 1962 â€" Mr. Dylan sings in a wheezy rasp that proudly scrapes up against its own flaws. That voice can be almost avuncular, the wry cackle of a codger who still has an eye for the ladies. But it can also be calmly implacable or utterly bleak, and it’s completely believable when Mr. Dylan sings, in “Narrow Way,” “I’m armed to the hilt, and I’m struggling hard/You won’t get out of here unscarred.”

The songs on “Tempest” are written for that voice alone â€" one that can switch from memory to prophecy, from joke to threat, and from romance to carnage within a line or two.

Mr. Dylan’s previous studio album, “Together Through Life,” from 2009, kept a kindly twinkle through most of its songs, which Mr. Dylan wrote with the Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. “Tempest,” like that album, was produced by Mr. Dylan (billed as Jack Frost) and played with his road band, joined by David Hidalgo, from Los Lobos, on instruments including accordion and fiddle; it includes one more Dylan-Hunter song, “Duquesne Whistle.”

Like Mr. Dylan’s other 21st-century albums, “Tempest” feels live and rootsy, vamping along in the zone where blues, country and folk intersect. But 8 of the 10 songs on “Tempest” stretch past five minutes, turning into down-home incantations. The album starts with a deceptively genial whiff of yesteryear; the opening of “Duquesne Whistle” sounds like a western swing disc from the 1930s before it fills out to a more modern recording style, and its lyrics romanticize a train whistle, “blowin’ like my woman’s on board.”

Next comes “Soon After Midnight,” a 1950s-flavored slow dance that moves from droll easy rhymes (“A gal named Honey/Took my money”) to something more bullheaded (“I’m in no hurry/I’m not afraid of your fury”) before winding up as a love song.

But “Tempest” grows far darker and surlier. Sometimes in oracular free associations, sometimes in terse narrative, Mr. Dylan has a lot on his mind: women, class, journeys, power, the inscrutable will of God and the omnipresence of death.

By the end of “Tempest,” he has sung about murder and suicide in the grim love triangle “Tin Angel,” a massacre in “Early Roman Kings” and the killing of John Lennon in “Roll On, John” (which, sentiment aside, is the album’s clunker). The title song on “Tempest” is a 14-minute chronicle of the 1912 sinking of the “Titanic,” in a Celtic-country waltz with 45 telegraphic verses:

They battened down the hatches

But the hatches wouldn’t hold

They drowned upon the staircase

Of brass and polished gold.

The allusive Mr. Dylan looks back to both an old Carter Family song, “The Titanic” (also a waltz that mentions a watchman), and to the blockbuster 1997 film.

Mr. Dylan builds songs around scraps and nuggets of the past: a Mississippi Sheiks refrain in the existential country-blues “Narrow Way,” the stop-time riff of Muddy Waters’s “Mannish Boy” in “Early Roman Kings,” bits of the traditional ballad “Barbara Allen” and phrases from John Greenleaf Whittier poems in “Scarlet Town.” From such shards Mr. Dylan constructs his own archetypal realms: “In Scarlet Town, you fight your father’s foes/Up on the hill, a chilly wind blows,” he sings, over a rustic dirge.

“Pay in Blood” harks back to the midtempo, mid-1960s Dylan of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (give or take the new song’s pedal steel guitar). But it’s a manifesto of Mr. Dylan now: grim, wrathful, tenacious.

Night after night, day after day

They strip your useless hopes away

The more I take the more I give

The more I die the more I live.

He sings forcefully, in a raspy, phlegmy bark that’s not exactly melodic and by no means welcoming. Battered and unforgiving, he’s still Bob Dylan, answerable to no one but himself.

No comments:

Post a Comment