Eight minutes to detail love’s dissolution on “Ballad in Plain D”; 11 minutes to itemize a parade of inconsolable icons on “Desolation Row”; 11 on a Song of Solomon ode to his wife on “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”; another 11 on the murder of New York mobster Joey Gallo. Yet it’s on Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album that he lays out the biggest epic of his career, “Titanic,” a 14-minute, 45-verse, chorus-free Celtic waltz about the day that great ship went down. In Dylan’s expert hands, he floats between the tragedy as rendered by the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie and William & Versey Smith as well as James Cameron, meditating on death, fate, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the realization that “there is no understanding on the judgment of God’s hand.”
Tempest finds Dylan at his most mortal, both physically – his phlegmatic voice is gritty enough to abrade paint and out-carnie Tom Waits – and lyrically. Hundreds of dead bodies float in the ocean, the gunned-down John Lennon gets remembered on the maudlin “Roll On John,” while the noir of “Tin Angel” ends in a grisly murder-suicide.
Fittingly, his backing band kills. Powered by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo’s accordion and guitarist Charlie Sexton, they navigate turn-of-the-century blues, folk, country-swing, and jazz. See how the “Mannish Boy” riff lurches to meet the conjunto accordion for a song about “Early Roman Kings.” It leaves Dylan free to prowl and growl, sinister and gallows-humored. When on the Stones-y “Pay in Blood,” he snarls out “the more I die the more I live,” he sounds like he’s got nothing but time.