3.5 stars (out of 4)
It’s official. On his latest album, “Tempest” (Columbia), Bob Dylan has become Tommy Lee Jones in “No Country for Old Men.”
Like Jones in the Coen brothers’ 2007 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, the 71-year-old Dylan of “Tempest” is surrounded by violence and sudden death. This is no place for tears or sentimentality. He is resigned to how the world is, lawless and degrading. But he does what must be done.
In “No Country for Old Men,” Jones – as the laconic, weathered Texas sheriff – comes to a stark realization: “I always thought when I got older God would sort of come into my life in some way. He didn’t. I don’t blame him. If I was him I’d have the same opinion about me that he does.”
It’s not that the sheriff is necessarily a bad man. It’s just that he’s seen the absolute worst of the world, and he questions if God just got fed up with it one day and left without even a word.
“Tempest” surveys the wreckage. It’s a long, craggy album that drags at the end with two slow-moving dirges. But most of it is an inspired mix of blood and bawdiness.
As with each of the four studio albums he has released since the turn of the century, Dylan self-produces with his excellent band. They’re in roadhouse-after-closing-time mode, situated somewhere along the Mississippi in the early ‘50s, steeped in the blues, country, early rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, the string bands and small jazz combos of the 78-rpm era.
“Duquesne Whistle” pushes the gin joint’s inebriated occupants onto the dancefloor for one last fling, a vaudeville-style tune with upright bass and brushed drums. Dylan’s lyrics dance too, flirting with loaded images. The train whistle “blowing like the sky is going to blow apart” euphemistically refers to lovemaking so wicked it could drive the narrator to his grave.
Cut to the countryish stroll “Soon After Midnight,” in which the narrator walks home alone, humming a wistful tune about the woman he had for a moment but couldn’t keep. “I’m not afraid of the fury,” he mutters with quiet resolve, “I’ve faced stronger walls than yours.”
“Narrow Way” rides a nagging blues riff and a galloping beat until the breaking point – a road story that works as sexual metaphor and political commentary. “This is hard country to stay alive in,” the irascible narrator growls. “I’m armed to the hilt … you won’t get out of here unscarred.”
He brings the hammer down in the murderous “Pay in Blood” over a guitar riff that Keith Richards might want to cop, and then re-appropriates Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” for the savage “Early Roman Kings.” He indicts gangsters in sharkskin suits “wearing fancy gold rings,” the new ruling class of financiers and robber barons. “Ding-dong daddy, you’re coming up short,” Dylan sneers, “gonna put you on trial in a Sicilian court.”
More chaos: “Tin Angel” creeps through nine minutes of mayhem to finish with a triple murder-suicide. The coldhearted storyteller expands the tale to global proportion on the epic, nearly 14-minute title song. Nothing less than a narrative about the Titanic’s sinking, “Tempest” can be read as something of a state-of-the-disunion fable. Dylan’s voice toggles between agitated rasp and measured narrative, the images meld the horrific into the mundane and back again. The stately fiddle-accented dirge becomes a backdrop for stories of bravery, treachery, desperation, until all disappear beneath the black, icy ocean. But the song never develops momentum – verse after verse without a chorus.
The slow-moving monument is followed by another – the seven-minute ode to John Lennon, “Roll on John.” It scales the album back down to a few words between old friends. “There is no more joy,” Dylan mutters.
Not that he was ever a soothing vocalist, but Dylan’s voice has been in ruins during many of his recent concerts, somewhere between Howlin’ Wolf’s growl and a tubercular wheeze. It’s hard to imagine what newcomers to Dylan’s music might think as they hear that ancient rasp, but it somehow suits the subject matter of these songs. Despite a range that spans a handful of notes on a good day, Dylan is masterful storyteller, by turns murderous, mischievous and tender, sometimes all at once – never more so than in the rueful “Long and Wasted Years,” an engaging melody built on a descending guitar riff. He ruminates on a lost love, and the damage he tries to shake off.
“I think when my back was turned/The whole world behind me burned,” he sings, a beaten-down sheriff in a country he no longer recognizes.