On his latest album, Tempest, Bob Dylan repeats simple melodies, bothering little with surprising change-ups or even modest bridges. He doesn't work himself up beyond the shuffle of the opening track, "Duquesne Whistle." But the album's worth exploring, if only to find the contradictions within the songs. Dylan will perform a selection of them when he visits the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum Nov. 5.
The height of Tempest's indulgence is the 14-minute title track. Like bluesman Blind Willie Johnson's "God Moves on the Water," this song recounts the sinking of the Titanic and chalks it up to God. Unlike Johnson's smoldering portrait of divine fury, Dylan's "Tempest" almost waltzes through the tale. Dylan savors little episodes - the captain accepting his fate, the bow splitting apart - as if they're fond memories, not tragic parables of God rebuking man's hubris.
Revealing cognitive dissonance is a habit on Tempest. While nursing heartbreak on "Narrow Way," Dylan, 71, finds time to mention burying his head between the breasts of a "heavy-stacked woman." As he describes three sides of a deadly love triangle on "Tin Angel," it becomes hard to tell which male rival is calling the other "a gutless ape with a worthless mind." "Long and Wasted Years" exemplifies the mellow sweetness of many latter-day Dylan records almost as nicely as "Spirit on the Water," a track from 2006's Modern Times. This makes it all the more abrupt when Dylan warns his love that "the sun can burn your brains right out."
The character in "Pay in Blood" is the most elusive. Dylan's lyrics suggest he's a judge, jury and executioner ("I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done"), as does the song's vengeful, triumphant mood. But this man is also one of the condemned ("I've been through hell. What good did it do?"). Indeed, hell left him perfectly capable of cheap shots such as "You've got the same eyes that your mother does/If only you could prove who your father was." Dylan even winks at the album's unvarnished treatment of his voice with the line "Hear me holler, hear me moooan."