Thanks to Daniel Lanois’ fetish for recording four guitars playing at once as if from the bottom of a sarcophagus and the star’s dour twaddle, many people called Time Out of Mind Bob Dylan’s Death Album, but Tempest is the one where the darkling sounds half in love with easeful death. Boy, is he at ease. In “Pay in Blood” those pretty Edge-like guitars can’t quite scour a narrative as macabre-awesome as Titus Andronicus. It helps that Dylan sings like he’s chewing on the woman’s elbow; it should be called “Seeped in Blood.” The title track, as long as the Titanic itself, is this album’s “Highlands,” ambivalent about plunging its roots in any context (it boasts such historical fidelity that “Leo” DiCaprio nods from behind his easel and brushes) and has Dylan pretending he’s singing the jolliest sea shanty ever; he sounds especially excited when depicting the boilers exploding, bodies flying, and bows breaking.
Occasionally the effort winds him, and what’s left is a geezer as sentimental and creepy as Joe Biden. Before the eulogy to John Lennon – as dreadful as “Lenny Bruce”—he offers an unconvincing epithalamion called “Soon After Midnight,” in which Dylan hopes for a dance with a fairy queen. Dylan’s not yellow—he’s chicken. Whenever Bob hitches a ride on the skipping jalopy of George G. Recel’s drums and Tony Garnier’s bass, the album is as much a hoot as Modern Times and “Love and Theft”. But if the rhythm section deserves mention, the guitars of Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball are mere cricket noises. Dylan is the frontman and the mix doesn’t let the audience forget it. Fortunately those croaks and wheezes have gained in emotional resonance; I’ll even swear he’s mastered them. On “Narrow Way” he and his boys kick up a good head of steam using an anonymous woman as an excuse to record couplets like “Ever since the British burned the White House down/there’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town” for posterity.