Bob Dylan's reputation was in a sorry state for much of the '80s and '90s -- even Rolling Stone offered little more than tepid praise for, say, 1986's reviled Knocked Out Loaded. ("Less bad than pointless"!) But that all changed with the release of 1997's Time Out of Mind, a startling, gentle, almost disconcertingly beautiful meditation on love and/or aging and/or death. The general theme, as seized upon by deified American icons from Johnny Cash to Warren Zevon to Glen Campbell in their own twilight years, is I won't be around forever: The prettiest song's chorus is "It's not dark yet/ But it's getting there."
But happily it was a beginning, not an end -- Dylan has been on a monster run since, continuing with 2001's perhaps even more rapturously received Love and Theft (voted, like its predecessor, the top album of that year in the Village Voice's comprehensive Pazz & Jop critics' poll) and stretching on to encompass 2006's feisty Modern Times (which won P&J as well), 2009's accordion-laden Together Through Life and now, this week's Tempest. (Plus the usual flow of bootlegs and rarities and such, and since we're still a bit off-season, we'll also ignore his gleefully deranged 2009 oddity Christmas in the Heart, though that remains the funniest Bob Dylan album title imaginable.)
What's great about these albums is that Dylan never sounds like he's dying -- he sounds electrifyingly alive. Tempest is a hoot, sweet and snarling ("I pay in blood/ But not my own"), climaxing with a 14-minute ode to the Titanic (complete with Leo cameo) and a shorter but just as pointed tribute to John Lennon. It's a remarkably ribald album: "I'm gonna have to take my head and bury it between your breasts," is a thing Bob Dylan sings. The playlist above spans this modern renaissance -- I must admit that Time Out of Mind and its fluttery gauziness remains my favorite, but there's surprise and elation and bracing vivacity aplenty here. As the man says, "You think I'm over the hill/ You think I'm past my prime/ Let me see what you got/ We could have a whompin' good time." Yes, whompin'. Have fun.