Bob Dylan, “Tempest” (Columbia) — Curse Dylan’s pedigree. Bob Dylan — the irascible genius, the living legend, the reclusive wunder-coot — has been making truly stellar music this century, but the requisite galaxy of four- and five-star reviews is blinding and off-putting to many mere mortals who might really dig this stuff. More young listeners groomed by shuffled playlists and postmodern retro experiments, from the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Mumford & Sons (who shared the stage with Dylan at last year’s Grammys), likely would relish Dylan’s spirited spelunking through early 20th-century pop music and now, on “Tempest,” mid-century blues and folk balladry. Critics keep harping on how Dreadfully Important it all is, because the Dylan legend must be maintained. But it’s not. “Love and Theft,” the ironically titled “Modern Times,” that nutty Christmas album — it’s all just good Americana (really good). Without the ’60s-savior pedigree, though, this stuff wouldn’t rate a booking any bigger than, say, City Winery or S.P.A.C.E.
“Tempest” finds Dylan, 71, and his ace touring band ambling through more antediluvian grooves and typically cryptic stories. The album, his 35th, opens with the lightest, breeziest Western swing heard since folks were tuning in Bob Wills on KVOO in the ’30s. The song, “Duquense Whistle,” marvels at the communicative power of a simple train’s toot.
But this train quickly leaves the rose-tinted station behind and embarks on a restless, rattling journey. The music stays light (save a couple of Chicago blues riffs) while the themes get heavy. Through the soft, late-night rumination of “Soon After Midnight,” the low and moody banjo and single-note fiddle of “Scarlet Town,” the tip-toe rhythm and monotonous bass riff of “Tin Angel,” Dylan applies his ruined voice to shudder at “the evil and the good living side by side,” painting word-portraits of a doomed sucker who “renounced his faith, he denied his Lord.” Dylan had told Rolling Stone earlier that this album would be a religious collection but that he “just didn’t have enough.” Maybe so, but as “Tempest” turns the songs and their characters become increasingly forlorn, forsaken and in need of last rites.
The two ramblers at the end, especially. “Tempest” is Dylan’s longest studio album, and its title track is his second-longest song (just two and a half minutes short of “Highlands” from “Time Out of Mind”). For 14 minutes, over 45 verses with no chorus, Dylan retells the story of the Titanic as only Dylan can. The band eases into a Celtic waltz (again with zero force, a very light touch) while Dylan fashions a campfire tale of “dead bodies already floating” and a passenger who fires his pistols, as well as some heroic moments and lifeboats given up to crippled children.
It’s a curious choice of subject — in the centennial year of the tragedy, and Dylan at his own half-century mark from his debut album — and the marathon song is prickly with Dylan’s own ghosts (“The Titanic sails at dawn,” he sang 47 years ago in “Desolation Row”), including a feedback loop between Dylan and the 1997 movie “Titanic.” In that James Cameron blockbuster, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jack, states his personal motivation by virtually quoting Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” — “When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose,” Jack says — and in returning to the subject Dylan includes not only an artist character named Leo. Like his original hero, Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s inspiration late in life seems to come less from real human contact and more from reading newspapers and watching movies.
Except the closer, “Roll On, John,” in which Dylan offers a wee-hours prayer to another unsinkable great: his old friend, John Lennon. In a voice sounding more choked up than usual, Dylan sings of “another day in the life” and then turns the Beatles lyric into a personal lament: “I heard the news today, oh boy,” he croaks, recalling the assassination in the middle of another eight-minute workout.
One of the best songs on “Tempest,” though, is one of the shortest. At just under four minutes, “Long and Wasted Years” finds Dylan — or whatever persona he’s crafted this time — talking with an old flame, someone he loved “for one brief day.” Like meeting a past lover who’s clearly gone off the rails, this song does just that — maintaining its weary country jangle and superb tumbling riff while Dylan babbles on ever more incoherently about life since their brief but potent fling. It hasn’t been good: His family’s gone (“I lost track of ’em when they lost their land“), he’s a shell behind his dark glasses and he’s convinced that “when my back was turned the whole world behind me burned.” You can see the poor woman with her brave face, withdrawing herself and claiming she’s late for an appointment, meanwhile the crazed Dylan insists, “You don’t have to go!”
Is this how he thinks the world sees him now, a fried husk still jabbering on? Is he right?
In concert: A concert announcement came today for Bob Dylan & his band, with Mark Knopfler opening, at Chicago’s United Center on Nov. 9. Tickets are $49.50-$131.50, on sale at 10 a.m. this Saturday via ticketmaster.com.