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Bob Dylan, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ – Song Review

Bob Dylan
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Fifty years into his career, every new Bob Dylan album is still greeted with a mixture of anticipation and expectation that few can match. What’s he going to say about life? How’s he going to say it? Did he change religions again? Is there anything salvageable in his voice? ‘Duquesne Whistle,’ the first single from his upcoming album, ‘Tempest,’ has been released and, while it doesn’t answer all those questions, it still bears many of the hallmarks of Dylan’s late career resurgence.

For many of his most famous recordings, the music has often been perceived as a mere framework for his lyrics. Here it’s almost the opposite. The lyrics, co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, aren’t much by the standards we expect from Dylan. It’s built around train imagery — territory he’s mined throughout his career — that doesn’t fully coalesce into a narrative. Still it’s hard not to smile at the sly wit he employs. Who else in 2012 can get away with saying, “You rascal, I know exactly where you’re going?”

Instead, ‘Duquesne Whistle’ makes its bones musically. It continues the exploration of pre-rock western swing that he’s often used over the past 15 years. Guitars and organ comp against the shuffle as an upright bass pushes everything along at a nice clip. There are some wonderful fills and a few nice changes of pace, particularly in the last minute that leads to the jazzy outro guitar solo.

Modern technology has stripped most records of the sound of musicians playing in the same room together. Thankfully, Dylan’s sensibilities pre-date the advent of ProTools. There’s a ton of space and air in here that most producers would try to remove. Listening to ‘Duquesne Whistle,’ you can practically envision Dylan and his band in studio staring at each other as they navigate the changes and smiling at a particularly inventive fill.

And yeah, you always want to hear Dylan sung by a more “conventional” voice, especially with his voice almost completely shot. But at the same time, the old-timey music is almost ideally suited for his weathered croaking, and he still puts more personality and meaning into a slight inflection than the bulk of singers with more traditional vocal gifts. The old CBS Records slogan still holds true: nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.

‘Duquesne Whistle’ is streaming over at NPR. ‘Tempest’ will be released on Sept. 11.

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