“I pay in blood but not my own.” Those lines stand out in the dense blizzard of words, thoughts, and imaginings on Bob Dylan’s 35th album. Seeming to call down the years, they’re a tart reminder that the man who was once the high priest of the withering put down can still deliver a chilling line like nobody else.
Pay In Blood is possibly the best track on the latest instalment in Dylan’s late period re-flowering following 2001's Love and Theft, 2006's Modern Times and 2009's Together Through Life. Recorded with touring band – bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G. Receli, steel guitarist Donnie Herron, and guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball – he’s as playful, rueful and snarling as ever on a set that includes epic storytelling and sepia-toned evocations of a long-lost era.
Dylan moves across the land like a carpetbagger. Or maybe he's more like a retired frontiersman who’s hung up his buckskin and shooter for an east coast life of reclusive splendour, except, of course, that he spends most of life on the road. And these songs, played in the form of relaxed rockabilly and jazzy blues, sound like they’ve been absorbed during the course of those decades of constant touring. They conjure up images of ancient plains, people and times without ever losing a modern relevance.
“Ever since the British burnt the White House down there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town.” Dylan sings on Narrow Way and he sounds old and wise enough to have witnessed the event in the first place. But while Duquesne Whistle includes snatches of childhood memories and the Hank Williams style lament Soon After Midnight is like something you might read in a battered paperback left sitting in the corner of an Edward Hopper painting, Dylan is no antique piece. On Early Roman Kings, he chimes “I ain't dead yet, my bell still rings.” and he sounds not unlike John Lee Hooker rocking in his chair as a red-hot band cooks up around him.
The music is tumbling and rough-edged but with a kind of warm, twinkling contentment to it as rock 'n' roll’s Satchmo wheezes and rasps his way gamely through a great set of tunes. Tempest includes some short, beautifully-formed tracks but this being Dylan, lyrical elaboration and extended grooves are also present. The nine minutes of Tin Angel slowly unfolds to tell a grim tale of love gone wrong and ends in three bloody murders like a fable from America's old west.
The title track is a full 14 minutes and 45 verses long and it’s an imagined account of the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago. Bob even gives Leonardo DiCpario a mention among nightmarish visions of falling bodies, broken necks and brother rising up against brother in the bloody slaughter on the stricken deck.
It’s a kind of fictionalised first-hand reportage meets Irish folk dirge but rather than leave it as Tempest’s finale, Dylan delivers a sad dedication to John Lennon on Roll On John, a tear-duct bothering tribute that references Day in The Life and Come Together. It brings together two song-writing greats in a ghostly theatrical union that makes you wonder what Lennon would be doing now.
Quite an ending to an album that finds Dylan in crackingly great form and proves he stands utterly alone in a music culture ruled by mediocrity and instant gratification. In his recent lengthy interview with Rolling Stone magazine, another sixties icon which has made less of a virtue of remaining true to its original vision, Dylan is asked why he is still misunderstood. He shrugs and says: “Everything people say about me or you they are saying about themselves. They’re telling about themselves. Ever notice that?”
Better to listen to Bob than deconstruct him so.