What do you do after facing down mortality and making a grand final statement that turns out to be not so final after all? If you’re Bob Dylan in the years since his 1997 masterpiece Time Out Of Mind, you keep rolling on. On the four albums he’s released since then—factoring out the bizarre yuletide excursion Christmas In The Heart—Dylan reached back through the decades, centuries even, drawing inspiration from the earliest sources of American music to create self-produced albums that insert the latest version of himself—the wry, knowing, creaky guy who emerged from an encounter with Death with wisdom to impart—into more respectful, even scholarly takes on traditions he used to bend and break. They also sound like the only albums Dylan should make these days. The lowest period of Dylan’s career—also known as most of the ’80s—found him trying to keep pace with the times, complete with gated snares and plastic backing vocals. That’s a losing game, especially for an artist who once defined the cutting edge, a duty most musicians only get to assume once in a career, if ever. Dylan backed by fiddles and ukuleles makes a lot more sense than guest production from David Guetta ever could.
Now 71, Dylan sounds positively skeletal on Tempest, his voice stretched almost past the point of sounding like a voice at all. It suits him. And it suits the material here: sparer, spookier songs than those found on recent albums, tracks filled with fatalistic lyrics that find hope only in companionship, and even then, sometimes only the illusion of hope. The title track is a 14-minute, chorus-free account of the sinking of the Titanic that, like the side-length epics on previous Dylan albums, builds in power as it goes along. The ship sets off for a “golden age foretold,” but of course it doesn’t get there. During its journey west and then down, it becomes a metaphor for what-have-you—progress, America in 1912, America in 2012, life itself—taking everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to a dreaming watchman with it. As the song builds and repeats, Dylan makes details like “dead bodies already floatin’” and “shattered crystal” form a mosaic of doom, but doom that still offers a hint of redemption, a possibility of grace held up even at the point where “all things had run their course.”
“I ain’t seen my family in 20 years […] they may be dead by now,” Dylan sings on “Long And Wasted Years.” Then he quotes a few lines from “Twist And Shout,” sounding like a man at peace with leaving the past behind and doing what he can about the present. The past still exerts a hold on the album, however. The protagonist of “Scarlet Town” grapples with the legacy of his birthplace, a burg populated by “flat-chested junkie whore[s]” that finds “Uncle Tom still workin’ for Uncle Bill.” It’s still home, though, and both the words and looping melody suggest it’s the sort of place that, like all birthplaces, can’t ever really be left behind.
The notion of coming full circle serves as a recurring theme here, via both the lyrics and rootsiness of the music. It isn’t a new theme. Dylan has played the part of a man who’s traveled the world and come back with a message and a warning since “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But now weary wisdom has taken the place of apocalyptic urgency. He sounds like he’s come to understand that even the direst warnings usually go unheeded, leaving those who survive to sing about it. “It’s soon after midnight and my day has just begun,” Dylan sings on “Soon After Midnight,” sounding surprised to still be around, much less awake. If he has any final statements, he’s saving them. There’s too much work to be done.