“Early Roman Kings,” our first taste of the forthcoming Bob Dylan album Tempest, shambles in with a low guttural rumble like a yard dog about to snap.
It’s a blues, Dylan’s way — with a sawing “Mannish Boy” riff, a snorting harp, and a series of brilliantly mixed metaphors: Early Roman kings, in his mind’s eye, wear shark-skin suits, but hold no less danger. After all, the same fever dreams of escape, let loose in a gravel-gargling howl, echo across the ages — from dust-covered plebeians in the time of Caesar to the shotgun shacks of Muddy Waters’ steamy Delta: “Fly away, flap your wings!” Dylan crows … “fly by night!”
Just then, Los Lobo’s David Hidalgo adds a wheezing accordion, like the backs of the put upon groaning with the effort — and Dylan begins stringing together the kind of haughty put downs that have defined his best work: He calls these thoughtless rulers “peddlers and meddlers,” then “sluggers and muggers.” Later, with a lip-smacking glee, he castigates them as “lecherous and treacherous.” He assures you that as easily as they will destroy cities, they will turn their sights on you, too.
Finally, his rage begins to subside — but only after Dylan brays: “I ain’t dead yet!” As if you needed the reminder now. His band continues along with a groove full of dark, roiling portent, but it’s over now, like a furious but brief summer storm. All that’s left is the faint smell of ozone, and the lingering sense of wonder at the power of it all.
Tempest, a self-produced 10-song effort, is Dylan’s initial album of new songs since Together Through Life in 2009 — and his 35th studio release. He’s already on tour, with dates in Europe and North America this year then the UK in 2013, even as The Tempest is set to arrive on September 11, 2012 via Columbia Records.
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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Bob Dylan. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: BOB DYLAN: In honor of Bob Dylan’s birthday, Something Else! Reviews presents 7 for 70 — our list of top recordings from across the 70-year-old’s lengthy career. We were careful to select at least one project from each of his five decades in music, stretching between 1963 and 2009, but didn’t order them in any particular way. The list is necessarily subjective. But like all birthday presents, it’s the thought that counts.
BOB DYLAN – TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009): Bob Dylan, commissioned to do some soundtrack work, kept recording with the assembled group — ultimately producing a powerfully personal result. “Together Through Life” is a revelation in its stubborn unwillingness to move into the realm of Statements. Of Big Records. Of Career-Defining Blah Blah Blah. Dylan wants to make a small, good thing — focusing inward, mostly, talking about relationships with both honesty and a ragged sense of humor — and he brilliantly succeeds. Highlights include “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” and “My Wife’s Hometown,” both of which sound like shambling leftovers from Dylan’s late-1980s sessions in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois — complete with surprising synocations, biting guitar (courtesy of Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and fun, braying vocals.
ONE TRACK MIND: BOB DYLAN, “NOT DARK YET” (1997): For me, “Not Dark Yet” is the best thing Bob Dylan has done in ages, this perfect enigma from a guy who’s made a career of such sleights of hand. An edgy post-modern lament downshifted into quiet Civil War balladry, “Not Dark Yet,” remains a riddle — and maybe that’s the very definition of good art: It’s something that you never quite figure out. At first, when it appeared on 1997’s perhaps over-celebrated Time Out of Mind, I was thinking that this was Dylan looking back on his own life, on his many accomplishments, and seeing more to be done. Dylan, issuing his first original songs since 1990’s Under the Red Sky, had been slowed by a life-threatening illness. So, he realizes, now more than ever, that the clock is ticking. In a larger sense, he’s a guy, in keeping with the title of the Grammy award-winning album from which it came, who is out of time. Dylan is both misunderstood by a new generation, and also moving into the last third of his life.
SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: BOB DYLAN, APRIL 21, 1993: On this night, Bob Dylan once again proved he was no fan of history. And that’s why I’ve been a fan of his for so long. See, I’ve always loved the in-concert head fake. After all, I already own the albums. Alas, showgoers in the modern age want the hits, and they want them note for teeth-splinteringly boring note. My response: You could hardly blame someone for not wanting to play a 25-year-old song the same old way. (In fact, to be honest, you could hardly blame him for not wanting to play them at all.) Well, some folks around me during this performance — right up front, third row — certainly did. Too bad. If you wanted to hear “Like a Rolling Stone” simply regurgitated, Dylan’s hard-eyed message was this: Buy the record. All night, he played with structure, changing the tempo (and sometimes the key) of most every tune. I was enthralled.