At 71, Bob Dylan is as twisted as ever.
On "Tempest," out this week, the singer that the 1960s counterculture attempted to claim as its official spokesman is once again coming clean about who he actually is: a prophet of doom, a world-weary witness of man's capacity for inhumanity, and a chronicler of our inherent frailties, limitless failures and recurrent follies.
The Dylan of "Tempest" is the grim seer on the mountain top, looking down on the massive mess below with a mixture of empathy, compassion and disgust.
There also is more than a little "Don't say I didn't warn you" tossed in for good measure.
Sounds like a hoot, huh?
Strangely, it is. Throughout "Tempest," Dylan takes what sounds like delight in painting grim, poetically detailed visions of the doings of the damned as they stumble through the fallen world. He sounds positively invigorated, even if his voice is beyond shot at this point. The devastated croak of a voice lends a narrative authority to the performances. You believe what Dylan is telling you here, because he sounds like he might have been around when the serpent slithered its way into the Garden of Eden, and has been around ever since, taking notes on our collective vile behavior.
For Dylan, unlike Nietzsche, "God" isn't dead, he is just completely grossed out and disinterested in the orgy of vanity and narcissism raging on good ol' planet Earth. So we're on our own. The only thing "Blowing in the Wind" these days is the rank stench of moral turpitude.
This isn't something new for Dylan, so it shouldn't scare you off. Much of the excellent "Tempest" recalls the Dylan presented to the world in the mid-'70s, through the best songs on the albums "Desire" and "Street Legal" - "Isis," "Oh Sister," "Sarah," "Changing of the Guard," and "Is Your Love In Vain?" among them. History wants to paint Dylan as somehow emblematic of the 1960s peace movement, but anyone who really listened would have noted that Dylan never sounded like he had found any peace for himself. He certainly didn't feel comfortable preaching peace to anyone else.
That's not to say that Dylan can't get fired up in the vaguely political sense. He just doesn't do so in a manner that offers any closure. Thus, "I Pay in Blood" and "Early Roman Kings" could be directed at late 19th century plantation bosses as easily as they could present-day Wall Street crooks and soulless financiers.
"This is how I spend my days/ I came to bury, not to raise/ I'll drink my fill and sleep alone/ I pay in blood, but not my own," Dylan intones during the former, and the allusions in the simple stanza lead in myriad directions - to the Bible, to old American murder ballads, to the ghost of Shakespeare. One could grab hold of virtually any of the album's lyrics and perform similarly rewarding forensic work. Or not.
Everyone caught out in this "Tempest" is either wrestling with death, attempting to cheat it, or dead already. The narrator of opener "Duquesne Whistle" notes the locomotive's call as an announcement not of arrival, but of departure - of his true love, and ultimately, of his corporeal self, bound for glory or perhaps somewhere a bit south of there. The lovely, lilting "Soon After Midnight" finds the singer longing for something he's not likely to ever get, even though it's all he wants; "Narrow Way" could be a song where the narrator is addressing his god, and the news isn't good - "It's a long road, it's a long and narrow way/ If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday"; "Scarlet Town" takes great delight in describing a hell-on-earth where the narrator feels quite at home - "Set 'em up Joe, play 'Walkin' the Floor'/ Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore," Dylan half spits and half croons.
Two "Tempest" songs deal with marriage. Neither ends well. "Long and Wasted Years" pairs a beautiful ballad melody with heart-rending reminiscences on a broken love. "It's been a while since we walked down that long, long aisle/ We cried on a cold and frosty morn/ We cried because our souls were torn/ So much for tears/ So much for these long and wasted years," Dylan laments. "Tin Angel" is an epic poem in metrical verse, recalling an earlier marriage-themed tour de force of Dylan's, "Isis." It's a tale of betrayal, lust and murder most foul, but Dylan passes no judgment - by the end of its nine minutes, all three lovers are dead.
Much has been made of the weighty title track, a 14 minute exegesis ostensibly detailing the sinking of the Titanic. In fact, the Titanic story is merely a mask over a stirring commentary on the manner in which men meet their deaths. (Few of the many characters in the song do so with anything resembling dignity.) A stanza near the end of the slow-gaited piece gives us the heart of the matter: "They waited at the landing, and they tried to understand/ But there is no understanding the judgment of God's hand."
The song might have survived with fewer minutes, but it's an interesting excursion, nonetheless.
Musically, "Tempest" is rooted in the music of the 1920s, '30s, '40s and '50s. Dylan loves to recycle Muddy Waters riffs, and he does so very well yet again, with "Narrow Way" and "Early Roman Kings," both of which follow a "Mannish Boy" template. The band - particularly the rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile - moves languidly and gracefully among country swing, plaintive balladry and steam-driven electric blues, the musicians consistently subverting themselves to Dylan's vocal. The effect is at once old-timey and timeless - it sounds like music that has always been around, and it is irreverently anti-modern.
So what has the rest of the world made of "Tempest" since its release on Tuesday? The reviews have been almost unanimously positive, with such heavies as Rolling Stone, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the Guardian UK among those singing the album's (only occasionally guarded) praises. It's selling well in its first week, too. On the local front, the Record Theatre store in University Plaza had sold through two shipments - both disc and vinyl - by Wednesday night, and the store's buyers were in the process of ordering more.
What does any of this mean? Likely, that those who have already fallen beneath Dylan's spell will love "Tempest," buy it, write favorably about it, maybe share it. It doesn't matter. Dylan is by this point a musical genre unto himself, and an album as dark and demanding as this one isn't likely to make him any new fans.
Like he cares.