For his 35th studio album, “Tempest,” Bob Dylan wanted to write religious songs and ended up hopping a freight train to the apocalypse.
Couching images of end-times America in old-time American melodies, the 71-year-old has delivered his most compelling release in more than a decade. That’s faint praise for anyone who gave up on Dylan after the Carter administration, sure, but find me another rock demigod crafting tunes this violent in their golden years. You can practically hear the guy tapping his toes in puddles of blood.
But before Dylanologists had heard a bloody note of it, it was the album’s title that made them gasp. “The Tempest” is considered William Shakespeare’s swan song, which might mean that. . .
No, no. Dylan pointed out to Rolling Stone that Shakespeare’s “Tempest” was preceded by the word “the.” Dylan’s “Tempest” is just “Tempest.” Hadn’t one of the greatest lyricists in American song taught us anything about attention to detail?
Regardless, that retirement-rumor kiboshing comes as a relief, because Dylan has found some fresh gravitas in his withering voice. His pipes sound more trashed than ever, so he pulls right up to our ears, making these sinister songs feel eerily intimate. It was a tactic he hinted at with “Christmas in the Heart,” a collection of snarled holiday carols from 2009. The band keeps everything tender and mild while Dylan softly sneers something terrifying.
Listen for it on “Narrow Way,” a nimble jump-blues number that sounds like it survived a nuclear winter. “This is hard country to stay alive in,” Dylan rasps. “Blades are everywhere, and they’re breaking my skin.”
“Duquesne Whistle” employs a similar trick. It’s a classic American train song, its chirping steel guitars channeling hope and wanderlust. Dylan pushes so much wind through his throat that his voice starts to resemble the affectionate roar of Louis Armstrong. But instead of signaling the freedom of a fresh start, this train whistle is “blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart.”
It gets better, which means it gets worse.
“Tin Angel” recounts a love triangle that ends in gunshots and stab wounds. “Early Roman Kings” takes the 1 percent on a bluesy, five-minute frog march. And over the patter of “Pay in Blood,” Dylan yanks a refrain from his pocket and flicks it open like a rusty switchblade: “I pay in blood, but not my own.”
The album’s title track is an elegy to the 1,502 passengers who perished on the Titanic — that hulking metaphor that we all pondered on the tragedy’s centennial in April. Clocking in at nearly 15 minutes, the song’s lyrics blend fact, fantasy and a dash of James Cameron: “Leo took his sketchbook/He was often so inclined/He closed his eyes and painted/The scenery in his mind.” Whether you first learned about the Titanic from a textbook or on Blu-ray, the sinking-America metaphor still holds. We’re doomed.
For a finale, Dylan changes the tone, taking a long and lovely leap across the decades with “Roll On, John,” an ode to the late John Lennon. The song recounts the Beatle’s dazzling rise and senseless end, all while slipping in lyrics from “A Day in the Life,” “Slow Down” and “Come Together.”
Dylan doesn’t growl through this one. He (somehow) clears his throat and delivers the album’s most bittersweet melody with acute composure. He isn’t singing about fresh wounds. This is a hero poem. He’s casting Lennon in bronze, polishing a friend’s myth while still working away at his own.
“Roll On, John,” “Tin Angel”
performs at Verizon Center on Nov. 20.