Bob Dylan is 71. Always-strong critical showings from such septuagenarian contemporaries as Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, and Tom Zé still don't even come close to his towering impact. After all, they weren't presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He's probably the only musician in America from whom people await yet another classic at such an age. From no less an authority than Rolling Stone, the early buzz on Tempest is that it's his first masterpiece since Love and Theft -- which was an unfathomable 11 years ago. Let's see if they're right.
Tempest's first single has already been compared to Louis Armstrong -- maybe because Dylan spends so much time talking about blowing (and don't think he's not flaunting the entendre possibilities: "Blowing like she's at my chamber door"). But also his voice, which David Bowie once likened to "sand and glue," sounds like gravel and cement. Nonetheless, this is his happiest-sounding melody in years -- only Love & Theft's "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" matches it for sheer gallop, combined with the gorgeous ragtime chords of Modern Times. Huge starting point. And huh, it's pronounced "du-cane."
"Soon After Midnight"
"I'm searching for phrases/ To sing your praises," Dylan carefully measures in a surprising prom theme croon. It's after midnight and he's got a date with -- seriously -- a faerie queen. Modern Times was a lilting throwback and a hodgepodge of sorts, but this is straight-up "Earth Angel." Except make out the words in his phlegm-y grit and you'll hear a muttering about "two-timing" and an "I'll drag his corpse through the mud." It becomes a love song again for the last line, as if he wanted to peer around to make sure no one just caught him.
This seven-minute jump blues would've fit perfectly on Love and Theft, with its pleasantly grating, sawed slide riff and grinning ironic refrain ("If I can't work up to you/ You'll surely have to work down to me someday"). The second fantastic one, really sly and hilarious with quotables galore. Some of the best are "Even death has washed its hands of you," "It's a hard country to stay alive in," "Behind a thousand tongues/ I could've held them all" and that's merely the first half. One of his most electric-sounding songs ever, I think, plus around five minutes in he motorboats a fat girl.
"Long and Wasted Years"
The music has that funereal float of the slow songs on R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People, while the narrative swing of the sung-spoken words bites from Lou Reed's exclamatory style. "Oh baby! You just might have to go to jail someday!" Pretty funny in a macabre way, too. "I haven't seen my family in 20 years!" he muses, "they may be dead by now." Then he quotes "Twist and Shout" and it just gets weird and sweet. "If I ever hurt your feelings/ I apologize." Brief, warm, and odd.
"Pay in Blood"
Speaking of Reed, this groove is caught somewhere between Set the Twilight Reeling and Luna's Bewitched. (Luna's an excellent band, run don't walk to their Amazon used listings). This one's grand, ratty vocal dares you to put him in front of a firing squad. Love how virtually tuneless he is in this hoarse, post-Waits carnival barker voice his scribble has disintegrated into. "You bastard! I'm supposed to respect you?" later devolves into "I'll break your lousy head." Credo: "I pay in blood/ But not my own."
This is quickly becoming his creepiest album. Haunting violin and flecks of doleful banjo -- who does he think he is, Pentangle? This is a murder ballad a la the Handsome Family, right down to the "sweet William" reference. Local color's strong here ("The streets had names that you can't pronounce") and his punchy word-at-a-time diction wouldn't be difficult to see the late, great Warren Zevon reading. Seven minutes, though -- the spookiness gets silly when it's finally apparent it's not going anywhere. His tone is most derisive on this album, unless I missed him dismissing a "junkie whore" on Freewheelin' or something.