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Music From an Old Country

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When Dylan's Time out of Mind came out in 1997 you could tell it had a different kind of electricity; lightning bolts instead of dim bulbs. Such a turnaround in creative endeavour was a long time in coming, but you knew it would come. The roots of that album were in the two sets of covers he'd put out earlier that decade, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, on which he plunged his head into the waters of the old songs, the source material, and brought up a fistful of pearls. Deliah, Love Henry, Blood in my Eyes... deepwater songs that won't stop playing once you've heard them.

This October there's an exhibition of Ana María Vélez's photos from the Camden Town video shoot for World Gone Wrong at the TestBed1 gallery in Battersea from October 25. He's walking the streets Sickert painted in top hat, striped shirt, frock coat, black gloves. Spin the magic lantern forward 20 years and you get Dylan walking the city streets once again for the video of Duquesne Whistle, the opening track from Tempest, his latest album, where a young man with flowers and a girl in his eye gets kneecapped for his trouble, all set to the chord changes of Dylan's road band, before being thrown to the street as Dylan and his basement entourage go nightwalking by.

It's the one song written with Robert Hunter - the first released collaboration was on Down in the Groove back in 88, and they penned Together Through Life in 2009. Lyrically, Duquesne Whistle feels like a coda to those sessions, but musically it's an overture for the blood and guts to come, a slice of lemon on the tongue before the dark meats and heavy sauces of the main show. The lilting Golden-Age Hollywood-in-Hawaii opening is the sound of corruptible innocence, the small town vibe before Hitchcock's Uncle Harry arrives; Rita and Orson in the scene from Lady From Shanghai set in an aquarium, ravenous creatures of the deep moving behind the words of love.

After Duquesne, the Tempest proper begins, and we're pitched right into the action, slippery with entrails and blood and prophecy. I'm reminded of the exchange near the end of The Unforgiven: 'I guess he had it coming to him.' 'We've all got it coming to us, boy.'

For the lyrics, Dylan's starting point seems to be homilies from the Gramophone age, brittle as shellac, and as easily broken. He uses, then abuses, the kind of simple pleasing rhymes you might find on a tea towel in a gift shop. The rhymes dally with banalities before he twists their heads off with a killing juxtaposition or unexpected denouement, in a manner no one else could have done or sung in the same way.

For his voice on Tempest is glorious, holding the ghost of previous incarnations - a touch of the croon from Nashville Skyline, even, on half a line from Soon After Midnight, amidst the wild undergrowth of a long-travelled voice heavy with smoke and spirits and road juices.

It's part of what makes this late period Dylan so thrilling, and while there's no confessionals on Tempest - these are story songs, character roles, murder ballads and epics cut up, folded in and following the ley lines of the folk tradition in which they spawn and swim - his singing has a close-to-the-mic intensity, the phrasing particular, exact and assured.

In interview, Dylan's talked about songs from the Tree of Life and songs from the Tree of Knowledge. These are from the latter, apples rotten on the bough, fruits that root where you drop them. The music is haunted by spectres of the blues, country and folk, but sharper and cleaner than some of his late-period road bands have been and dedicated to a stern, inexorable simplicity of purpose - the riff and melodies are intimate, spare and repeat themselves over and over like a brittle underlay.

The title song is a 45-verse epic about the sinking of the Titanic - or is it the dream of the sleeping nightwatchman, or an allegorical ship of state listing through the chicanery of politics and finance? Is that the same body politic at which he rages in Pay In Blood, its anger vibrating with the same rigidity of purpose as Masters of War?

With its swirling whirpool of an Irish waltz tune, the 14-minute Tempest has much to commend it, a song of nuances in which you sink deeper with every listen, but it is not the album highlight. For that, turn to Scarlet Town, Tin Angel, Early Roman Kings and Long and Wasted Years, the latter with its glorious waterfall of a tune falling around lyrics drifting from the bedroom window of a failed marriage. It is one of his most achingly lovely and profoundly sad songs, a piece of high art with a far horizon and a hand in your heart.

Early Roman Kings uses Muddy Waters' riff to spray the mind with Iron-Age tides of violence, possession and conquest, while Tin Angel is a compulsive, bony, inexorable updating of the classic murder ballad - the likes of Maria of the Red Barn, Matty Groves or the grisliest in all the traditional canon, Long Lankin.

Scarlet Town's refrain come from Barbara Allen, which you can hear young Bob singing on the 1962 Gaslight Tapes - a song Samuel Pepys would have heard in London before the plague - and which provides the root of Tempest's hallucinatory, most beautiful song. It's here you feel Dylan sinking deepest into the folk traditions of the Old World, the one he sunk into with Martin Carthy in London in the bitter winter of 1963. In it you can feel the shadow play of all those 'songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans and turn into angels - they're not going to die...'. Like Hard Rain, much of Tempest hits you as the first lines of songs that don't have time to be written. There's that urgency to it. Fifteen years from Time Out of Mind, and fifty years on from his first, Dylan has once again created an album that stands with his best, and stands alone.