Bob Dylan's new album "Tempest" is bloody and brooding, a steely exorcism of the grimmest storytelling traditions in the American musical canon. On the 35th studio album of his 50-year career, the celebrated singer-songwriter crafts a haunting collection of tales steeped in tragedy imagined or retold ― murder ballads, the sinking of the Titanic passenger liner, and an encomium to John Lennon ― against a rousing musical backdrop of old-time country and folk, electric blues and obscure mid-20th century pop.
Indeed, much of the music has a canny vintage flavor. It could have been lifted ― or was, charge critics ― from a 78 RPM record blaring in a Depression-era speakeasy or juke joint in the wake of World War II. It neatly suits Dylan's cracked, gravelly delivery and he and his band's loose, fiery playing.
Lyrically, the 71-year-old Dylan remains at the top of his – and everyone else's – game, his acrid wit infusing "Tempest's" ten bleak compositions with a resilient irony, a device much of his best work contains.
On the breezy opener "Duquesne Whistle," the band swings, a train rattles down the tracks and Dylan croons, "You're the only thing alive that keeps me goin'/You're like a time bomb in my heart."
Ticking away, it's a harbinger of trouble to come, as the narrator in the next song "Soon After Midnight" casually uncorks his malice to a catchy melody that could have been the hook on a hit single back in the 1950s. You almost want to sing along. With a heart that's "cheerful, never fearful," he muses, "A woman named Honey took my money" while Charlotte is "a harlot, dresses in scarlet." As for a perceived rival, the narrator casually threatens him with murder in rhyme: "Two-timin' Slim, who cares about him/ I'll drag his corpse through the mud."