Right around the time disgraced New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer was being raked over the coals for manufacturing Bob Dylan quotes for his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, the 71-year-old icon did an interview in which he talked about blending fact and fiction in the Titanic-themed title track of Tempest. What’s ironic is that Dylan has been repurposing songs and literature for years, and confounds journalists with doublespeak and outrageous quotes—Lehrer should have argued that his acts of invention were inspired by Dylan’s own oeuvre. Or, to paraphrase a famously misattributed T.S. Eliot quote: Bad poets borrow, Dylan steals.
But Dylan also filters everything through his Dylan-esque sensibilities, so even though the 14-minute tale of the Titanic tragedy in “Tempest” includes seemingly ridiculous mentions of scenes from James Cameron’s film, it’s also a captivating narrative, packed with gruesome details and evocative imagery. He approaches pretty much every song on Tempest with the same vivacity, whether it’s the old-timey vibe of “Duquesne Whistle,” the playful rhymes of “Narrow Way,” or the menacing murder ballads, “Scarlet Town” and “Tin Angel.”
There’s nothing as musically revolutionary as recent works by Dylan’s spiritual contemporaries, Tom Waits and Neil Young, but Tempest is easily the most memorable of his late-period efforts. It’s yet another album that complicates and invigorates Dylan’s status as a genuine living legend.
Playlist picks: “Scarlet Town,” “Tin Angel,” “Duquesne Whistle”