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The 71-year-old Bob Dylan performed this week at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y. (the new york times)
The 71-year-old Bob Dylan performed this week at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y. (the new york times)

DISC OF THE WEEK

Bob Dylan glows darkly in Tempest Add to ...

  • Title Tempest
  • Artist Bob Dylan
  • Label Columbia / Sony
  • Rating 3.5/4

The album begins without him. The jaunty intro to Duquesne Whistle lasts a few bars longer than you’d guess – a slow Dylan coming. A happy old-time chug-and-shuffle kicks in. Bob sings to a charming melody about one more ride, a train “blowin’ like she ain’t gonna blow no more.”

And Dylan is 71, blowing like he’s right on time.

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His voice? Craggier than an English muffin on Everest. Yeah, when he dies he’ll leave his throat nodules to Tom Waits. Dylan had momentarily stopped smoking around the time of 1969’s Nashville Skyline. “I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes,” he told Rolling Stone then, “and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.”

No Caruso, ever, but on the sweet slow dance of Soon After Midnight, Dylan croons softer and nicely, to the comfy sway of something like Fats Domino’s Walking to New Orleans. It concerns a girl named Honey, who stole his money. There’s a line about the lateness of the night, but that his work had just begun: “I’m in no great hurry; I’m not afraid of your fury.”

So, love and theft, and mortality. There may be many among us who feel life is just a joke, but only fools chortle at death. Leonard Cohen is no fool. Neither was Johnny Cash; neither is Dylan.

Like Cohen’s Old Ideas from 2011 and Cash’s American IV: The Man Comes Around, Dylan’s Tempest finds a rich-blooded master in a sort of late-life blossom – a deadline, perhaps, providing a sense of focus; this, following the pleasant diversion of 2009’s Christmas in the Heart, a jingle-belled Zimmerman ride. There’s a glow to the roots-rock sound here. The wordplay and phrasing is nimble, with Dylan at his quotable best. He drops a “baby blue” on us, but with a wink – it ain’t all over now, not quite yet.

Narrow Way is a rumbling late-career classic, with a repetitive Robbie Robertson-styled jackknife riff slashing the responses to the calls of the verse. On the chorus, a spiritual deal is proposed: “If I can’t work up to you, you’ll surely have to work down to me someday.”

Things turn epic and darker on the album’s second side, though the closing Roll on John is a gentle Lennon-quoting elegy to the slain former Beatle.

On the drone-folk ballad Tin Angel, a love triangle goes bloody, vengeful and awful, with Dylan rhyming particularly and relentlessly over a piano, a light acoustic strum and an upright-bass moan. There is never a moment in its nine minutes that suggests things will turn out well.

As for the penultimate, title track, it is a 14-minute waltz of the Titanic. A compass is no help to a captain. We are all trying to figure it out. “But,” as Dylan suggests, “there is no understanding on the judgment of God’s hand.”

Sonny Boy Williamson II knew there was a “man down there,” and that there was only one way out the door.

That there “must be some way out of here” is what a young Dylan wrote and sang a lifetime ago. The passage is narrow – chute to the killing floor.

Icebergs happen. Ships go down. And when they do, it is much too late to learn how to swim.

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