Dylan fans have invented some amusing parlour games. One is “Guess That Song” from the strange, incomprehensible soup of his live performance. Another is keeping a running tally of the characters who pop up in his lyrical hall of fame. Over the years that exotic rogues’ gallery has included Ezra Pound, T S Eliot, Cecil B DeMille, F Scott Fitzgerald, Paul Revere, Ma Rainey, Shakespeare, Einstein, Casanova, Neil Young and, astonishingly, Alicia Keys.
On Tempest (Columbia, £8.99), his 35th studio album, there are two more unlikely entries. The first is Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears in the title track, a 14-minute saga about the Titanic. The second is John Lennon in “Roll On John”, a hair-raisingly odd song in which naive fan poetry (“another day in the life/On the way to your journey’s end”) blends with an abstract study of American guilt and Lennon becomes an African slave, bound and gagged, sailing across the sea.
It’s wheels within wheels. The Titanic was an epic image in 1965’s “Desolation Row” (“Praise be to Nero’s Neptune/The Titanic sails at dawn”) and Dylan’s Lennon – “you burn so bright” – turns into William Blake’s tiger. You’re in at the deep end again, trying vainly to work out why Leo and John? What does he mean? It’s a game the author sees no sense in playing: asked recently about people’s obsession with analysing his layers of meaning, he said: “If I wasn’t Bob Dylan, I’d probably think that Bob Dylan has a lot of the answers myself.”
Whatever, there’s a direct relationship between difficulty and vitality in Dylan’s work. The 2009 album, Together Through Life, felt weirdly static somehow – a lot of creative ideas were hemmed in by blues pastiches and straight love lyrics, and even the antique musical settings seemed to lock each song down within its own sepia-tinged, imaginary world.
Tempest is different – destabilising, disorientating, dazzling. It’s from the same musical palette he’s been exploring since the “comeback” trilogy Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times (rich American roots, from creaky delta blues to juke joint swing, under the musical direction of his longtime bassist, Tony Garnier) but there’s something else going on here, too. The voice is startlingly close-miked and more urgent than it’s sounded in years, as if primed to deliver a few shocks.
The first three tracks are hot-blooded, reasonably coherent stories of love and deliverance – the throbbing train song “Duquesne Whistle”; the fairytale “Soon After Midnight” (which sets Edward Lear’s meters against the broken chords of “Unchained Melody”) and “Narrow Way”, which declares: “I’m gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts.” Then, half way through the blues lullaby “Long And Wasted Years” we are cast out, blinking, into a desert landscape of twisted metal and bright light, with a disembodied voice crying, “What are you doing out there in the sun anyway?/Don’t you know the sun can burn your brains right out?”
The bold, modernist refractions of different voices and historical settings continues through “Early Roman Kings” to the riveting “Tin Angel”, which follows an ancient king, with his buckskin and his ladies, into a symbolic, three-way suicide: “He leaned down and cut the electric wire/sat into the flames and snorted the fire.” It’s as dislocating as the time-travel in 1965’s “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”, where he tore a parking ticket from the mast of the Mayflower.
Set against the faceless, vaguely masonic agents of power on Tempest, the title song about the Titanic is surprisingly light – a sea shanty full of bathos and deadpan humour: “Leo said to Cleo, I think I’m going mad/But he’d lost his mind already, whatever mind he had . . .”
Dylan has denied any direct connection between his album and Shakespeare’s last play (“That was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain Tempest,” he said.) But whether or not this is his own swansong, there’s reason to compare it with that older swashbuckling, baroque wonder, which one scholar once called “an echo chamber of Shakespearean motifs”.
Prospero was Shakespeare’s study of the great magical mind in old age, throwing all he had into one last vision for Miranda – the highbrow, the lowbrow, the politics, the masques and the fairies. Tempest could be Dylan’s own creative sign-off. When you get to your 35th record, in your 50th year of recording, I rather imagine the only person your music is intended to amuse is yourself. So if John Lennon turns into William Blake’s tiger, who then sets out on the range “where the buffalo roam” – well, perhaps it’s not so hard to understand why them, and why now, after all.
Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic