by Emma Charlton
PARIS, Sept 7, 2012 (AFP) - From a foot-tapping train song to tales of midnight murder or a ballad on the "Titanic", Bob Dylan's playfully sinister new album "Tempest" hits shelves next week, half a century after his debut record.
In his self-produced 35th studio album, the 71-year-old poet of American folk rock sweeps from dark tales of doomed love and betrayal, to apocalyptic stories of good and evil, or others full of tough-guy swagger.
Speaking to Rolling Stone magazine about the album, Dylan -- who was born to a Jewish family, real name Robert Zimmerman, but converted to Christianity in the 1970s -- said he set out wanting to make a religious record.
Along the way he switched tack, leaving an album peppered with ominous Biblical overtones, blending rock, blues, folk and jazz, and where -- in his own words -- "anything goes and you just gotta believe it will make sense."
Jaunty -- danceable even -- the opening track "Duquesne Whistle" for one is anything but a religious dirge: set to an irresistible chug-chug of a bass line, it revives a long-gone tradition of American train songs.
"Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing/Sounding like it's on a final run," rings the chorus to the first track on what -- though he will not say so himself -- could be Dylan's last album.
Unveiled online 10 days before the album release Monday in Europe and Tuesday in the United States, the video for "Duquesne Whistle" mines dark territory under an upbeat veneer -- in a way that could sum up the album.
It sees a happy-go-lucky young man set his sights on the wrong girl, only to end up bundled into a van, tied up and beaten while Dylan -- a sinister, pimp-like figure -- strides the streets with a motley crew of hangers-on in tow.
This is one of many flashes of cinematic violence -- delivered with a wry smile -- that dot the album.
"A dark and bloody effort that suggests the old man ain't going quietly" was how The Daily Beast summed up "Tempest", which has earned rave reviews -- including five out of five stars and the honorific title of "single darkest record in Dylan's catalog" from Rolling Stone magazine.
'A tribute to his murdered friend John Lennon'
In "Pay in Blood" Dylan growls, menacingly: "I pay in blood, but not my own," while "Soon after midnight" opens as a smoochy ballad before its women characters are exposed as "harlots", and meet a gory end.
"Narrow Way", another stand-out track, is a bluesy, finger-clicking affair, in which a tough-as-nails Dylan tells of a "hard country to stay alive in", even when "armed to the hilt."
At once violent and moving, the closing track "Roll On John" is a blow-by-blow account of the murder of Dylan's friend John Lennon in 1980 -- hovering at the side of the Beatles frontman "about to breathe your last".
"Shine your light, moving on/You burned so bright, Roll on John," writes Dylan in tribute to his youthful rock 'n' roll comrade.
But the highest body count -- and the songwriting medal -- goes to the title track "Tempest": a 14-minute ballad on the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago.
There is more than a touch of the macabre as Dylan recreates in 45 verses the horror and disbelief among the passengers on board the ocean liner, the lords and ladies dancing on deck who end up as "floating corpses".
"They battened down the hatches, but the hatches wouldn't hold/They drowned upon the staircase of brass and polished gold," he chants, to a traditional Irish folk tune.
Doomed families tumbling into the darkness, acts of callousness and bravery, all find a place in the story -- including a character named Leo, in a nod to Hollywood's DiCaprio-starring "Titanic".
In Dylan's telling, the captain "read the Book of Revelations and he filled his cup of tears" as his ship foundered.
The Los Angeles Times called the track "one of the most extraordinary compositions from the most acclaimed songwriter of the rock era."
Dylan's first original album since the 2009 "Together Through Life", "Tempest" hits shelves 50 years after his eponymous debut "Bob Dylan" in March 1962. Its US release also falls exactly 11 years after the September 11 attacks, but his record company Columbia denied any link to the anniversary.
Columbia Records has harnessed the Internet to the full to generate a buzz, starting with the release online of "Duquesne Whistle" and its video, then making selected tracks available for streaming onto mobile devices
On Wednesday it made all 10 tracks available for streaming for free on iTunes, and from Monday, temporary "pop-up shops" will be open in New York, Los Angeles and London where Dylan fans can buy "Tempest" albums, some autographed.