Bob Dylan is 71. His voice, by conventional standards, is rasping and close to shot. His songs steer whatever curious course he plots. Speculation swirls that Tempest may be Bob’s last album. The Tempest was, after all, Shakespeare’s last play, but needless to say, Dylan isn’t telling.
The musical choices come from the entirety of his long and winding career – Chess-style electric blues, western swing, straight-ahead rock’n’roll – and all are played by some of the best and most locked-together musicians on the planet. Accordions and fiddles hint at The Chieftains or even The Pogues. This is Dylan, who’s gone from beatnik folk clubs to stadium rock, showing off the best stuff in his bag of tricks.
The songs themselves come from a decidedly dark place. Dylan is an artist near the end of his life. There’s no leaves-of-brown sentimentality on offer here, but songs like Narrow Way, Long And Wasted Years and Pay In Blood look back down a long, hard road. The overall atmosphere is of a red, polluted sunset before encroaching twilight.
The opener, Duquesne Whistle, is a sinister train song. Meanwhile, Scarlet Town returns to the no-hope low life of a corrupt and hard-luck city. The inexplicable 45-verse title track – maybe an epic offshoot from Desolation Row – has the Titanic gliding majestically to its icy fate. The final track, Roll On John, is an elegy for John Lennon but also perhaps a hymn to the afterlife where Dylan will sooner or later join him. (As will we all.)
When Johnny Cash was facing his mortality, he borrowed songs from Nick Cave and Trent Reznor. By contrast, Dylan stands completely alone, examining what may come next and returning to tell us. But shouldn’t it have been expected? Dylan was always two steps ahead. A half century ago, he blazed the trail from Buddy Holly to Woody Guthrie to Like A Rolling Stone and he gave rock’n’roll a chance at literacy. He turned The Beatles on to reefer, and led the drug culture through The Gates Of Eden to a William Burroughs-like surreal wasteland of freaks and geeks and girls with no heart.
At times he would lapse, or get daft on religion, only to return with the power of Blood On The Tracks, Street Legal or Time Out Of Mind.
Now he takes the final and most significant step. He is the first rocker to really dare to take a look at death and assess his own dwindling days.