Stormin’ Bob’s big strumback

Bob Dylan, Tempest (Columbia)                                            

Rating: 3 Star Rating

Intriguing: Bob Dylan's new release is an 'old fashioned LP that would be best served by pausing to flip it over' Intriguing: Bob Dylan's new release is an 'old fashioned LP that would be best served by pausing to flip it over'

Intriguing: Bob Dylan’s new release is an ‘old fashioned LP that would be best served by pausing to flip it over’

By the mid-Nineties, Bob Dylan was a revered irrelevance.  His fellow Columbia Records veterans Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen had re-established themselves as major American voices. Yet he, by common consent the most significant  of them all, was trading on past glories.

Underwhelming albums came and  went, bought only by the most devoted fans. But for his aptly nicknamed Never Ending Tour, he might have faded from view altogether.

Then, in 1997, came the near-miraculous Time Out Of Mind album, which qualified not just for the ‘return to form’ accolade critics customarily accord work that is not entirely mediocre, but ranks among Dylan’s greatest recordings. 

It revitalised his career, although not  his long-term creativity. Not so far as the succeeding studio albums went, at any rate. Tell Tale Signs, a 2008 collection of material unissued in the previous two decades, is superior by far to his last few ‘proper’ releases.

As he approached his 70s, Dylan settled back into the Americana genre he long ago co-founded. His themes were dark, but the music itself was tepid.

When his latest album, Tempest, gets under way with the brisk barrelhouse blues shuffle of Duquesne Whistle,  followed by the leisurely, jaunty Soon After Midnight, you would be forgiven  for thinking that here’s more of the same. ‘My heart is cheerful,’ Dylan murmurs huskily, ‘it’s never fearful.’ It’s nice that he’s perked up a bit, after 15 years of gloom. But it’s hardly inspiring stuff.

Well, it doesn’t do to second-guess old Bob. Just as you’re settling in for more of the rocking-chair grandpa stuff, Tempest turns into another thing entirely. It is,  in the old-fashioned sense, an LP – an album of two distinct halves that would  be best served by pausing to flip it over between Pay In Blood, which is far jollier than its title suggests, and Scarlet Town. Because here matters get interesting.

It’s surely a coincidence that Scarlet Town shares its name with a track  from last year’s bleak Gillian Welch masterpiece, The Harrow & The Harvest. But had Dylan been stung into action by the way that album so powerfully evoked the kind of records he used to make, you can imagine this being the response.

His Scarlet Town is astonishing; this time, his return to simplicity stops you dead in your tracks.

The urban blues of Early Roman Kings is as comically rambunctious as some of his first electric work. Fashioned around  a single low, looping phrase, Tin Angel is  a long, obscure, meandering parable that recalls his John Wesley Harding album, and wouldn’t have diminished it.

Fourteen minutes long, the title track is a stately shanty, weaving new patterns from the assorted myths of the Titanic, and summoning the ghosts of his song Desolation Row.

Dylan is not, however, repeating himself. He is merely referring to himself, the way he does with so many other kinds  of American music. It seems to have  re-invigorated him.

This may not be a classic Dylan album but it is – once it gets going – an intriguing one, and that’s a pleasant change.

It’s a treat to see Barry Adamson perform live. A veteran of Magazine, The Bad Seeds and Visage, this Mancunian master is shockingly undervalued as  a solo artist. He deserves to be recognised alongside Richard Hawley as one of  those rare acts who can breathe life and urgency into retro pop cool.

Adamson favours – among other sources – Quincy Jones, John Barry, Ray Charles and cool jazz. His show can make four men in a pub sound like a dozen at the Harlem Apollo, and his catalogue of songs – not least the spiffing new album, I Will Set You Free – manages to be at once wry and soulful, highly stylised yet ingenious.

Tim de Lisle is away.

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