TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Bob Dylan released his first album 50 years ago. Today he releases his 35th studio album called "Tempest." Now in his 70s, Dylan continues to tour the country and rock critic Ken Tucker says this collection of 10 new songs features many feisty, baffling, sometimes beautiful moments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NARROW WAY")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) I'm going to walk across the desert till I've been right on fire. I won't even think about what I left behind. Another brother anyway I can call my own. Go back home. Leave me alone. It's a long road. It's a long and narrow way. If I can't work up to you, you'll surely have to work down to me someday.
KEN TUCKER: Bob Dylan made the rare mistake of talking about his creative process on the eve of the release of "Tempest." He told Rolling Stone that he'd originally wanted to write a collection of what he called religious songs. That takes a lot more concentration to pull that off 10 times with the same thread, he said, than it does with a record like I ended up with.
Which means that either that his powers of concentration failed him, or he became distracted by other themes, topics, moods. I think it's a little bit of both. There are certainly songs here that sound less like concerted efforts than outpourings of rambling thoughts. There are also songs here that are as precisely crafted as any he's written. Take, for example, "Soon After Midnight."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOON AFTER MIDNIGHT")
DYLAN: (Snging) I'm searching for phrases to sing your praises. I need to tell someone. It's soon after midnight and my day has just begun. A gal named Honey took my money. She was passing by. It's soon after midnight and the moon is in my eye.
TUCKER: The beauty of the song's opening moments of "Soon After Midnight" - the way the music rises up like mist to envelop the tender couplet - 'I'm searching for phrases to sing your praises - is something to be cherished. We are better human beings for hearing such music. The melody is reminiscent of a 1950s doo-wop ballad, at once stately and deeply romantic.
The lyric, however, is grounded in a kind of coarse realism that Dylan insists upon at nearly every turn on this collection, which clocks in as one of his longest albums ever. Indeed, much of the tension in this new music comes from the contrast between the ringing loveliness of the guitars of Dylan and his band, and Dylan's growled words of sarcasm and a denial of repentance, boasts of sexual prowess and looks back in anger.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG AND WASTED YEARS")
DYLAN: (Singing) It's been such a long, long time since we loved each other but our hearts were true one time. For one brief day I was the bang for you. Last night I heard you talking in your sleep, saying things you shouldn't say. Oh, baby, you just might have to go to jail someday.
TUCKER: I have to grope outside of music to find expressions of thwarted love, of remembering painful stretches of life, as they are expressed on that song, "Long and Wasted Years." The song describes love gone slowly, steadily more sour with a ruthlessness shaped by wit that reminds me of some of Philip Roth's fiction, or of Philip Larkin's poetry.
When Dylan sings: Ever hurt your feelings, I apologize, the sentiment is completely denied by the witheringly insincere tone of his voice. Make no mistake about it, a lot of the music here is mean-spirited and goatishly crude.
No graphic rap music has anything on the brutal phrases Dylan uses to describe some women, and the revenge he exacts upon various foes and victims, who, in the title of another song, "Pay in Blood." And he's vehement about making clear that the blood isn't his.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAY IN BLOOD")
DYLAN: (Singing) Well, I'm bad (Unintelligible) steady and sure. Nothing more (unintelligible) than what I must be doing. I'm drenched in the light that shines from the sun. I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done. But sooner or later you'll make a mistake. I'll put you in a chain that you never will break. Legs and arms and body and bone, I'll pay in blood but not my own.
TUCKER: The latter half of the album consists of long compositions that borrow from various genres, from the blues to sea shanties. The song that's received the most media attention is the title tune, an almost 14-minute white whale about the sinking of the Titanic, in which Dylan mixes historical fact, imagined dialogue from real figures and a cameo by Leonardo DiCaprio - not even appearing as his film character Jack Dawson, but clinging to his sketchbook like a life raft.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEMPEST")
DYLAN: (Singing) Leo took his sketchbook. He was often so inclined. He closed his eyes and painted the scenery in his mind. Cupid struck his bosom and broke it with a snap. The closest woman to him, he fell into her lap. He heard a loud commotion. Something sounded wrong. His inner spirit was saying that he couldn't stand here long. He staggered to the quarterdeck, no time now to sleep. Water on the quarterdeck already three foot deep.
TUCKER: "Tempest" the album is bookended by two fascinating songs, one heartfelt but flawed, the other nearly perfect. The album closer is "Roll on John," Dylan's salute to John Lennon complete with Dylan's version of sampling - folding Lennon lyrics into his own.
The opener is "Duquesne Whistle," with lyrics co-written by Robert Hunter. Its jazzy jauntiness is devilish and sly. It presents a Bob Dylan completely enthralled by his music, like a kid in a musical candy store, gorging on rare sweetness as though it was life-sustaining sustenance.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Bob Dylan's new album "Tempest." You can hear a track on our website freshair.npr.org.