Although Tempest springs out of the gate with the jaunty Western bounce of "Duquesne Whistle," the heart and soul of Bob Dylan's 35th studio release is the title track, a bizarre, beautiful, occasionally brutal meditation on the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. If a single document could capture 21st-century Dylan, this is it: Sprawling to almost 14 minutes, the tune simultaneously flaunts his enduring gifts as a storyteller and paints a slightly awkward, painfully detailed portrait of the singularity of the songwriter himself. As it careens through more than 40 verses, his scenes are inspired equally by history books, old-time musical retellings and the blockbusting James Cameron flick. But his voice -- a worse-than-ever, emphysema-evoking death rattle that can seem both menacing and codgerly, brimming with both wisdom and senility -- is still strangely compelling. Gather round, children, Uncle Bob has some stories to tell.
Now 71 years old, Dylan has never seemed more worthy of his avuncular nickname. As an icon, he is the troublemaking uncle we all both feared and revered when he came 'round for Thanksgiving dinner, the horndog with a checkered past who refused to be ignored. On Tempest, he flaunts that persona in all his latter-day glory: He's wearing dark glasses so you can't read his eyes and licking his chops as girls pass by. He's packing heat and issuing glowering threats. He's smothering himself between the breasts of a "heavy stacked woman." Be unnerved, aghast or overwhelmed, but Dylan's vitality in 2012 still manages to inspire awe.
That awe is especially appropriate when you consider that, despite his phlegmy growl, Tempest happens to be Dylan's most evenly paced, wholly enjoyable record since 1997's Time Out of Mind. The musical forms are classic: 12-bar blues and straightforward changes, lots of rootsy instrumentation (the most distinct and artful of which is supplied by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, a longtime member of Dylan's touring band) and crackerjack playing. Also in sharp relief is late-Dylan's astute gift for constructing songs from a variety of classic sources: a borrowed Muddy Waters riff here, a traditional blues chorus there, bits and pieces of traditional ballads and epic poems throughout. Mixing and matching all these scraps, he creates a collage of Americana that seems as exemplary as the iconic stuff from which he steals: "I'll drink my fill and sleep alone/ I'll pay in blood, but not my own."
Although Dylan's dark mood persists here and he keeps an eyebrow cocked toward his own mortality, the rumor that Tempest might be his last album ever seems a bit absurd given the songwriter's continued vitality. Come hell or high water, he's going down with the ship.