His songwriting fiery and vicious, Bob Dylan makes his 35th album a dark and often menacing affair.
Tempest finds the 71-year-old Dylan in love with trains and hard-luck travelers, entranced by death and tragedy, and once again restless in his exploration of the various sounds that defined American music before he ever recorded a note.
Yet far from being an old-timey record, Tempest is another example of Dylan the reassembler, molding bygone sounds and themes into something urgent, modern and unlike anything else you'll hear in 2012.
The album bursts open with the country swing of lead single "Duquesne Whistle," while "Early Roman Kings" takes its bluesy stomp from Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy."
"Pay in Blood," "Scarlet Town" and "Tin Angel" are where Dylan really loads up on the brutality, delivering fables of sin and murder, each one soaked in bloody details.
"Tempest" is a nearly 14-minute retelling of the Titanic disaster, a loping Irish ballad of 45 verses that pauses on some horrifically gory details of the Reaper's conquest. Almost gleefully, Dylan paints the scenery that juxtaposes the grandeur of "brass and polished gold" and the sinking panic of the bodies floating in the murk.
Tempest closes with "Roll on John," a tribute to his friend John Lennon, marveling at the late Beatle's still-burning light, while quoting William Blake.
Rough and provocative, Tempest stands favorably against Dylan's remarkable run of post-death-scare albums. It's tough to argue that any of them, besides 1997's Time Out of Mind, can match the depth, inspiration and song strength of Tempest.