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They say that pop and rock music is a profession for young men or women. In that case, where do you file a record made by a singer/songwriter aged 71?
Released in September 2012, almost fifty years after his first studio album, this is Bob Dylan's 35th. If you've followed his career closely and heard the previous few, you'll know by now that his voice is pretty ragged at the edges, a growl that can croon and convey tenderness one moment, or snarling, spitting fury the next. But we're not talking about vocal purity here, and certainly not in the case of somebody who would probably be booted off 'The X Factor' within fifteen seconds if he came on under an assumed name and in heavy disguise. It's the sound, the songs, the music, the whole package that counts. Dylan has rarely been dull, and this is a fascinating, extraordinary album. One of his best? It's far too soon to judge, but for a long-term yet objective fan like me who can name at least a couple of his previous works which I don't care for, it's compulsive listening - and well worth five stars.
Do you like blues, country, folk with a bit of grit? Does the idea of challenging songs about love, anger, death, death and more death, the Titanic, and John Lennon appeal? If so, look no further.
Bob Dylan on guitar, piano and vocals (no harmonica this time), is backed by a six-piece band consisting of Tony Garnier (bass), George Receli (drums), Donnie Herron (steel guitar, banjo, violin, mandolin), Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball (guitars), and David Hidalgo (guitar, accordion, violin). The producer is Jack Frost, alias Dylan himself.
'Duquesne Whistle', with lyrics co-written by Dylan and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead, is the only song not completely written by Dylan himself. Like much of the music he used to play on his Theme Time Radio Show series, it's more or less pre-rock'n'roll, resembling nothing so much as the country music-cum- swing jazz and blues that was so prevalent in the late 1940s. What sounds like two pedal steel guitars playing complementary licks opens proceedings, with the drums and bass not kicking in for nearly a minute.
'Soon After Midnight', at 3½ minutes, is the shortest track here. A tender steel guitar intro and a song in more or less waltz-time, the overall mood may be reminiscent of 'To Make You Feel My Love', but this is a love song with a sting in the tail. Listen to the words and it's not as pretty as it might sound on first listen.
'Narrow Way' is a tougher musical proposition altogether, with a fierce guitar and fiddle intro and shuffling rhythm. The lyrics are equally tough - 'This is a hard country to stay alive in, Blades are everywhere and they're breaking my skin, I'm armed to the hilt and I'm struggling hard, You won't get out of here unscarred'.
Next comes a sad song of love gone bad. On 'Long And Wasted Years', he partly sings, partly speaks against a wistful backing of mainly guitars and organ, of a relationship that ended badly. 'We cried on a cold and frosty morn, We cried because our souls were torn, So much for tears, so much for these long and wasted years'. However there is a shaft of humour as well, with a reference to 'Shake it up baby, twist and shout'. I think we know where he found that one...
The tenderness in that song then gives way to the album's angriest five minutes. It's unclear just who his target is on 'Pay In Blood', but I suspect it's the political establishment in general. Someone has clearly rattled his cage, as against a mid-tempo setting led by steel guitar and piano, he growls and he snarls. 'Another politician pumping out the piss...You bastard, I'm supposed to respect you? I'll give you justice, I'll fatten your purse.' Cue visions of a microphone withering under the sheer venom of it all. Each verse ends with the warning, 'I pay in blood, but not my own.' Well, we used to call him a protest singer back in the early 1960s. He clearly still finds a good deal to rail against in the world around him. Don't we all sometimes?
After that, the more subdued 'Scarlet Town' almost comes as a relief. It's another song about a world, or at least a community, in turmoil, but sung more in a mood of weary resignation than anger. A softly-picked banjo and fiddle provide a relaxed medium-to-slow accompaniment.
If 'Pay In Blood' is an attack on politicians and governments, 'Early Roman Kings' seems to be taking aim at over-mighty bankers and financiers (can you blame him?). To a rolling bluesy backdrop of accordion and organ, he rails against 'The early Roman kings, in their sharkskin suits, bow-ties and buttons and high-top boots'. They destroyed your city, he warns, and will destroy you as well. 'I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings, I keep my fingers crossed like early Roman kings.'
OK, you weren't expecting an album of good cheer, were you? If you were, maybe his previous offering 'Christmas In The Heart' lulled you into a sense of false security. Now it gets even more violent. Over a backing with softly-picked banjo and snare drum to the fore, 'Tin Angel', is nine minutes of murder ballad. To sum it up briefly, man discovers wife is having an affair, he goes and confronts them, shoots dead the man who has come between them, she stabs her husband dead and then herself. But at least they are together in death - 'All three lovers together in a heap, Thrown into the grave, forever to sleep.' They evidently deserved each other.
Now for the title track - and make no mistake, this is masterful. Musically, 'Tempest' is a lovely Celtic waltz, opening with a gorgeous intro of two fiddles and piano. And what follows? A song about the sinking of the Titanic. Individual verses tell us of the chandeliers swaying as the orchestra continues to play, as alarm bells ring to hold back the swelling tide, friends and lovers cling to each other side by side; mothers and daughters descending down the stairs jumping into the icy waters, as 'love and pity sent their prayers.' Three gamblers carry on grimly in the dark, aware that none of them will live to tell the tale or disembark. Meanwhile the hatches are blown, water is pouring everywhere, the humbler passengers are trapped below decks. You are warned, folks, Celine Dion this is not. There are (count them) 45 verses altogether - but take it from me, the time taken to listen to this song is 13 minutes 55 seconds of your life very well spent. That beguiling tune is used right the way through, and the way in which Dylan builds up the atmosphere with detail on detail is astonishing. And that intro is still swirling around my brain.
What could follow that? One song is left, a tribute to John Lennon. 'Roll On John' is a slow, moody song opening with gentle mandolin, guitars and organ, with subdued bass and drums. There are references to the Quarrymen, the Cavern, the Liverpool docks and the clubs in Hamburg, and there are brief quotes from 'A Day In The Life' and 'Come Together', alongside the chorus of 'Shine a light, move it on, you burned so bright, roll on, John'.
There's a slightly fuzzy, but genuinely warm feeling in the sound throughout these 68 minutes. It's almost like listening to a well-preserved long-playing record from the 1950s - although it is in stereo, of course. Sometimes today's digital recordings sound too perfect, sharp and clean for their own good. This doesn't - and in my view, it's all the better for that.
A rather nondescript image is on the front, with the head of a classical statue and the title superimposed on top. Inside the four-page foldout is a shot of Dylan with five members of the band (which one forgot to set his alarm that morning?), and a list of who plays what. Dylan's albums have occasionally included the lyrics, and I really wish this was one of them. Oh well, you can always find them on google.
DYLAN'S LAST ALBUM?
At his time of life, nobody expects too many more new Dylan albums. When this was released, some of the media made a good deal of the fact that Shakespeare's last play was also called 'The Tempest'. Did the former Robert Allen Zimmermann choose this title deliberately because of that, or is he just teasing us? Frankly, this will be a hard record to live up to. But if he can deliver something as strong as this at such a late stage in his career, the creative spark is still very much in evidence, if he is contemplating more in the future. As he reminded us earlier on, he ain't dead yet and his bell still rings.
I played this record several times one weekend, and I haven't been mesmerised by an album so much for a long time. If you have any interest in Bob Dylan at all, you owe it to yourself to investigate this one, even if you don't choose to buy it. Some of the tracks are accessible on YouTube, and as is often the case, the Amazon page offers a 'preview all tracks' facility.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]