"I think when my back was turned, the whole world behind me burned," Bob Dylan grumbles on the grim Long and Wasted Years.
The times have a-changed since the freewheeling folk upstart electrified the hippie generation a half-century ago. Dylan surveys a scorched earth's damaged souls on the brilliant, bloody Tempest, his 35th studio album.
What hasn't changed are Dylan's peerless powers as a wordplay wizard and consummate storyteller. The violent Tempest, out today, continues in the vein of his recent groove-centric albums, steeped in tradition and bent toward blues. Produced by Dylan, it's another Delta-shaded affair that borrows from country, gospel, seminal rock and bygone pop and jazz eras.
Whereas his latter-day records bore simple, direct lyrics, here Dylan enthusiastically dances with language in sharp, colorful couplets that flesh out songs with ominous observations and ribald riffs.
His wheezy growl is ideal for this dark brew, whether he's detailing a triple murder-suicide in Tin Angel or vilifying modern robber barons in Early Roman Kings. Underlying the jokes and mayhem are sexual and political metaphors and bigger truths about human nature, twisted morals, fate and mortality.
That's clearest in the title track, an epic narrative about the Titanic disaster. Sure to challenge ears accustomed to compact pop hits, Tempest strings 45 verses across 14 minutes with no chorus. Set to a fiddle-driven Irish melody, it's a spellbinding, if often horrifying, account of doom.
Dylan closes with the sad but warm Roll On John, a benediction for the late John Lennon that cribs snippets from Beatles tunes and counters an uplifting chorus with fairly downbeat lines ("There is no more joy").
It's impossible to know whether Lennon would have proven as creatively daring and fertile as the iconic troubadour this late in the game, but Roll On wistfully hints that Dylan would welcome the competition. It's lonely at the top.
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