"Hear me holler, hear me moan," wheezes Bob Dylan near the halfway point of Tempest, his 35th studio album during a 50-year recording career. "I pay in blood, but not my own."
And, just as the movies have informed us, there will be blood. Nearly all of Tempest's 10 songs are consumed with death, from the submerged victims of the Titanic who take their deadly plunge during the course of 14 chorus-less minutes in the title song to the sharkskin suits circling for the kill over a Muddy Waters blues stomp in Early Roman Kings.
Of course, how Dylan frames the portraits in this Rogue's gallery is what makes Tempest so dazzling. As usual, there is nothing at all chic about a Dylan album. While noticeably more streamlined than 2009's Together Through Life, there is something fittingly ghostly about the musical temperament of Tempest. There exists a parlor style elegance at times that recalls the more folkish avenues of 2006's Modern Times. But it's all askew. For instance, on the album-opening Duquesne Whistle, a sunny, minstrel melody greets us as though it is being cranked up on some antique gramophone. But the melody is wobbly and woozy. Then it snuffs itself out so a more rugged roots-rock groove can ascend.
There are nods to musical tradition throughout the album. Scarlet Town presents a link to mountain music murder ballads (a curious choice, as the lyrics reference Quaker poetry). There is the aforementioned juke joint fray that all but slaps us in the face during Early Roman Kings. We even get to follow the bouncing musical ball once Soon After Midnight lifts its cloak briefly to reference a melody that sounds, for all the world, like the pop classic Sleepwalk.
Perhaps the most bewildering dance of death of all is Tempest's title tune, on which the toll of the Titanic is recounted over a jagged Irish fiddle melody. And it goes on — verse after sustained verse (more than 40, in fact) without a single chorus or refrain. It's like Highlands, the ambient epic that closed 1997's career redefining Time Out of Mind, reinvented as a violent sea chanty.
"They waited at the landing and they tried to understand," croaks Dylan at the song's conclusion as onlookers hope to make sense of a disaster that took 1,600 lives. "But there is no understanding for the judgment of God's hand."
It's kind of ironic when you think about it. Here is Dylan singing about death and the dead — about real blood on the tracks, if you will — while his own career plows on. The half-century mark now behind him, his records still have the power to enchant, fascinate and confound. That's Hurricane Bob for you.
Walter Tunis, contributing music critic