Since 1997’s acclaimed “Time Out of Mind,” Bob Dylan’s records have played a crucial part to his preserving and even fortifying his legacy. Anyone who has seen Dylan in concert over the past decade can attest that his live performances are hit or miss. With the right sound mix and the right crowd, you’ll be electrified; otherwise, you’ll wonder why you even bothered.
His most recent albums, however, have been uniformly excellent, and that includes “Tempest” (but definitely excludes 2009’s “Christmas in the Heart”). Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of his self-titled debut, his latest is a ragged collection of songs fixated on death and depravity. This is Dylan, at a craggy 71, in full-on storytelling mode, with half of the songs sprawling well past the seven-minute mark.
“Duquesne Whistle,” the first single, suggested Dylan had set up shop at a Delta juke joint at the turn of the century, but the variety here is surprising. “Early Roman Kings” stomps to a 12-bar-blues pattern, while “Scarlet Town” has a dirge-like melody underpinned by violin, banjo, and acoustic guitar.
With a distinctly Celtic flavor, the title track is a 14-minute reimagining of the Titanic tragedy, complete with references to James Cameron’s film about it. (Yes, that’s Dylan mentioning Leonard DiCaprio.) Meanwhile, “Roll on John” is an homage to John Lennon, his late friend and contemporary. It’s Dylan’s most passionate performance on the album, both heartbreaking and deeply felt. (Out now)
ESSENTIAL “Scarlet Town”James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.