The first song to see the light of day from the astonishingly vital Tempest (Columbia, ***1/2), Bob Dylan's 35th studio album, released in the 50th year of his recording career, was the blues stomp "Early Roman Kings."
Constructed around the repeating riff that also drives Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" blues boast, "Early Roman Kings" premiered in early August in a promotional clip for the Cinemax series Strike Back. (Why would Dylan choose a cable TV action drama to debut both "Kings" and "Scarlet Town," another stunning Tempest song? Bob only knows.)
In "Kings," the phlegmy-voiced troubadour gets off more than his fair share of memorable lines as he describes a menacing band of monarchs "in their sharkskin suits / Bow ties and buttons, high top boots."
These nattily dressed emperors could be members of a street gang, or rapacious corporate raiders: "They're peddlers and they're meddlers, they buy and they sell / They destroyed your city, they'll destroy you as well." And toward the end of the song, the 71-year-old Dylan, who plays the Wells Fargo Center on Nov. 19 with Mark Knopfler opening, has a boast of his own to make: "I ain't dead yet," he growls. "My bell still rings."
Indeed it does, loud and reasonably clear, considering that its feisty, death-haunted, randy and ready-for-battle songs are sung out by a still-expressive singer who sounds as if he's been gargling with gravel for the last several decades.
Tempest - which does not share a title with Shakespeare's last play because, as Dylan has explained in an interview with Rolling Stone, that Tempest is preceded by a The - is the fourth, and possibly best, in a string of self-produced albums that Dylan has recorded with his road band, beginning with Love & Theft in 2001.
One of the stranger albums in a career full of them - remember Self-Portrait, the 1970 double LP of mostly covers? Or 2009's Christmas in the Heart? - Tempest is already notable for, among other things, its nearly 14-minute title track.
In 45 verses and no chorus, "Tempest" tells the story of the sinking of the Titanic, set to an enchanting Irish melody, featuring the violin playing of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, who also plays accordion and guitar on the album, which was recorded in Jackson Browne's Los Angeles studio.
Amusingly, "Tempest" uses not only historical accounts and the Carter Family's "The Titanic" as source material, but also James Cameron's 1997 movie, with a character based on Leonardo DiCaprio's protagonist showing up twice. That's an apt in-joke, considering that in Cameron's script, DiCaprio quoted Dylan lyrics such as "when you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose," even though they were written five decades after the movie was set.
"Tempest" isn't the only unexpected twist. The song that precedes it, the 9-minute murderous love triangle "Tin Angel," also goes without a chorus, and though it contains many enticing couplets, it's enervating in the end.
Also problematic is the surprisingly sentimental closer, "Roll on John," a tribute to John Lennon that finds Dylan experiencing intimations of his own mortality as he touchingly - if a trifle lazily - quotes Beatles lyrics.
Those three songs make up the iffy last half-hour of an album that's uniformly strong in its opening seven-song stretch. The jaunty train song "Duquesne Whistle," on which Dylan got help with the words from Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, gets things going in style. The band jumps in confidently after a breezy old-timey opening, and the titular whistle fills the singer with optimism even as it "sounds like the sky is blowing apart."
That sets the mise en scene for an album in which life and love are often depicted in terms of bloody conflict. Dylan sounds primed for the fight, and game for partaking in his idea of fun. The grinding blues "Narrow Way" declares, "I'm armed to the hilt and I'm struggling hard," and is one of several songs that imply Old Testament justice will even out all inequalities in the end.
Meantime, however, the singer, who has taken on a resemblance to Vincent Price, seeks succor in the ways of the flesh: "I've got a heavy stacked woman with a smile on her face, and she has crowned my soul with grace," he reveals in "Narrow Way." "I'm still hurting from an arrow that pierced my chest, I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between her breasts."
The loveliest song on Tempest is the old-fashioned rhythm-and-blues ballad "Soon After Midnight." That's the one where the never-ending sojourner of song makes himself vulnerable and tenderly croaks, "My heart is cheerful, it's never fearful: I need to tell someone," sounding every inch a raspy-voiced man in love. "I'm searching for phrases, to sing your praises," he sings. And we, his longtime admirers, do the same.