8 August 2012
“I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises,” croons Bob Dylan on Soon After Midnight. It is fantastic to be able to report that popular music’s greatest troubadour is still as brilliant and bewildering as ever.
Words spill out on his 35th album, Tempest, to be released by Columbia next month: one liners, couplets, random observations, overheard expressions, inverted slogans and non sequiturs, verses and images often set up in baffling opposition to one another. What sounds at first like a gentle country love song contains the admission “My heart is fearful / It’s never cheerful / I’ve been down on the killing floor” and concludes with the threat to drag the corpse of somebody called Two Timing Tim “through the mud”.
There’s a lot of blood spilt on Tempest through murder and revenge, chaos and confusion. On the Muddy Waters style, harmonica-driven blues of Narrow Way, Dylan declares “this is a hard country to stay alive in / I’m armed to the hilt.” Although unfolding with a lot of wit and relish, this is Dylan’s darkest, maddest, most provocative collection of songs in a long time.
The word is that Dylan is pleased with his latest effort, or, as someone at his record company told me, “he wants people to hear it.” I have had the privilege of being amongst a select few journalists around the world to be allowed a sneak preview. It would be absurd to attempt a definitive review based on such a cursory listen but I was blown away with the mad energy of the album. At 71-years-old Dylan is still striking out into strange new places rather than revisiting his past. Although he no longer attempts to scale the heights of poetic imagery and dense metaphor that established him as popular music’s greatest lyricist, instead writing in bluesy couplets, the extreme collision of ideas and characters and the mysterious, ambivalent arcs of his narratives creates a pungent effect. Dylan still has the power to disturb and thrill. I emerged from this listening session feeling like I had been on a journey into the weird dream territory of Ballad Of A Thin Man, where nothing is quite what it seems.
His voice, often little more than a croak on stage these days, invests these ten tracks with the spirit of something ancient. Sure, he has the wheeze and gargle of an old man, but the words come through loud and clear, delivered with real relish. Los Lobos founder David Hidalgo’s fiddle weaves through the acoustic shuffle of Dylan’s touring band, guitarist Charlie Sexton, Stu Kimball and Donnie Heron, drummer George Receli and bassist Tony Garnier.
The sound is a continuation of the blues, country and folk styles that run through all his later work, but with less of the kind of Thirties pastiche he’s played with since 2001’s Love And Theft . There is a sense is that Dylan is still honing in on that wild, mercurial music he hears in his head.
These ten tracks range from the throwaway blues of Early Roman Kings to the nine minute ballad Tin Angel to the title track which runs to 45 verses and 14-minutes, relating a vision of the sinking of the Titanic. The album’s beautiful, surprising conclusion, Roll On John, is almost out of character, a shaggy, loose piano and organ lament for one of rock’s great dreamers, John Lennon. Dylan sings to his lost friend “your bones are weary, you’re about to breath your last / Lord you know how hard that bit can be” before breaking into an elegiac, bittersweet chorus (“Shine a light / Move it on / You burned so bright / Roll on John”). This is an album I can’t wait to hear again, the sound of a great artist approaching the twilight of his career with fearless creativity, our finest songwriter regarding the murderous madness of the world with an unflinching gaze and a loving heart. Roll on, Bob.
Tempest is released on September 10 on Columbia