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Bob Dylan reinvents himself again with new album Tempest

By Kate Dillon
On September 13, 2012

  • Bradley Cooper (left) and Zoe Saldana (right) star in the film The Words, released last Friday. The film also features Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde. AP Photo

If someone asked you how you felt about fiddle-heavy sea shanties with 45 verses, how would you reply? Don't be so quick to say "no thanks" - Bob Dylan's latest offering may change your mind.  

Tempest, released Sept. 11, is a ten-song bluegrass-rock apocalypse in the same aggressive vein as Love and Theft and Modern Times. It is a paean to blood, sex and wit. It is Dylan at his ragged, bitter finest. And, of course, it includes a 14-minute epic about the sinking of the Titanic (minus historical accuracy - Leo DiCaprio makes a brief appearance).

It can't be denied that the man's voice is shot. It's raspy, phlegmy and cracks on the high notes more often than not. But nobody ever listened to Dylan for his sweet, even tenor, and the rawness of the vocals bring out the furious twang of the music. His backing band is lethally talented and on this album, they make good use of banjo and fiddle.

Rollicking ballads like "Soon After Midnight," "Tin Angel" and "Scarlet Town" are as chilling as they are sardonic. The bluegrass waltzes backing the tracks are smoking hot, and the banjo couples in an odd harmony with Dylan's nasally whine. "Tin Angel," a story about a love triangle that ends in sorrow and a veritable bloodbath, sounds like something you might hear in a dingy bar in the Old West, your tin cup clanking against the stool in time.

"Early Roman Kings" and "Duquesne Whistle" (shout-out to our college) prove that when it comes to lyrics, Dylan's still got the knack. He's just as funny, sharp and ruthless as he was in his acoustic days. His choppy singing style is one of the most notable components of Tempest . He bites the words off almost as soon as they leave his mouth, especially on fire-and-brimstone tracks like "Pay in Blood" ("I pay in blood, but not my own") and my own personal favorite song on the album, "Narrow Road."

The song's final track, "Roll On, John," is a touching tribute to Dylan's murdered friend and fellow rocker John Lennon. If you're a Beatles fan, you'll really feel the bittersweet weight of it when Dylan rasps, "I saw the news today, oh boy."

And now for the album's long, drawling namesake, "Tempest": yes, it's ridiculous, you can have no doubts about that. It's silly, drawn-out and wanders all over the place. It's rank with heavy-handed metaphors ("the universe opened wide") and plain old nonsense (DiCaprio's appearance). But if you look down on it, you're missing the point. Complete absurdity, as it happens, is the point.

Dylan has long been the king of all things tongue-in-cheek, and with "Tempest," he proves that he's still at the top of his game. What other aging rocker could put together a sad ballad about fear and death, infuse it with over-the-top silliness and make it a success? He name-drops fictional characters, including a brothel owner who tells his girls they can clock out and a genial gangster who offers his seat to a crippled child. And, of course, there's this gem of a line: "Leo said to Cleo, 'I think I'm going mad,' but he'd lost his mind already, whatever mind he had."

The album, it must be said, is an upgrade of his last album, Together Through Life. It rocks a little harder, rolls a little smoother and makes you want to dance or punch someone in the head or maybe both. It's certainly one of the choicest offerings of blues-folk fusion around. Dylan has had many styles and many personas through his long career as a songwriter, but these days he's a little wiser, a little rougher around the edges and a lot angrier. (He wears some pretty cool hats this decade, too.) One of Dylan's most famous quotes comes to mind - "All I can do is be me, whoever that is." On Tempest, he's an enigma and a rocker, and it all falls together in a sour sort of beauty.

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