Dylan keeps to tried and true darkness

By Graham Reid

Graham Reid settles in with Bob Dylan's unsettling new album.

Bob Dylan performing in Los Angeles recently. Photo / AP
Bob Dylan performing in Los Angeles recently. Photo / AP

While many are exercising their opinion about the Rolling Stones' first concerts in five years - just four dates so far - to celebrate 50 years since their formation (most asking "why?" or commenting on their irrelevance), Bob Dylan just travels his own road, indifferent to opinion, time and the world in general.

Yesterday saw the release of his 35th studio album, Tempest, half a century after his self-titled debut and this past week he played four shows. There'll be 18 in October, 14 more in November ...

Tempest also has many a-twitter, but 71-year old Dylan is still taken seriously. His last decade has been one of his most fruitful and while the jury remains divided about his live shows, his albums Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009) topped the US charts. That sandpaper-gargling sound might be an acquired taste, but many like it.

Tempest opens with the country-rock train song Duquesne Whistle - co-written with Robert Hunter who delivered many of the Grateful Dead's lyrics.

Its jaunty step can be traced back to I Want You, Peggy Day and more whimsical pieces in his vast catalogue.

But after that Tempest gets deep, dark and unsettling. In the vengeful blues of Narrow Way he says, "your father left you, your mother too, even death has washed its hands of you"; the bone-crack Scarlet Town "where I was born" is a doomed Deadwood by way of darkest Bergman where evil walks; and the relentlessly plodding Tin Angel is a terrifying, nine-minute vision.

While this hour-long album - the 14-minute title track about the Titanic the weakest - mines a more narrow vein of American music than its predecessors, the riffing blues-rock, country and old school rhythm'n' blues (Early Roman Kings is pure Muddy Waters) are immediately engaging in their familiarity as those allusive, elliptical lyrics conjure up disconcerting doings on empty highways, loss (the slow Roll on John an unsparingly detailed and metaphorical account of Lennon's life and murder), uneasy visions, and broken hearts and bones.

As always, layers can be peeled away. The lyrics of the tender, pedal steel-coloured love song Soon After Midnight suggest a desperate need; women betray, there are are harlots in scarlet, he'll drag that man's corpse through the mud, but the object of his affection will be won. Love comes with an open heart but he's been through hard times to get here.

In Long and Wasted Years - a reflection on a failing marriage speak-sung like Brownsville Girl 26 years ago - he jocularly references "shake it up baby, twist and shout" but also notes "I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there are secrets in them I can't disguise".

Disguises, masks, different personae, myths... Welcome to Dylan's disturbing world.

The political/apocalyptic Pay in Blood - I'll pay in blood, but not my own" - is brutal in its damning tone: "I came to bury, not to praise," he says paraphrasing Shakespeare.

Tempest shares its name with Shakespeare's final play, but Dylan has dismissed the association. You'd be wise to also, and some imagery is simply included for the sake of a rhyme. This road goes on forever ... and into endless night.

Stars: 4.5/5
Verdict: Bob's back, after never being away, with dark visions and love songs from the borderland

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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