Apparently frustrated by his failure to spark a Mississippi Sheiks revival in the early ’90s, when he covered their songs solo-acoustic style on two consecutive albums, Dylan has borrowed one of their choruses for “Narrow Way,” one of this rowdy, wide-ranging, electric-blues album’s rowdiest and widest-ranging songs. It’s as if his sole purpose these days is to take what the Sheiks did in the 1930s, plug it in, demonstrate how ahead of its time it was, and help the rest of us catch up.
People practicing their devil’s advocacy on this album might point out that Peterson sometimes sounds more sentimental about his Christian faith than he probably is. His almost too-precious singing is almost overwhelmed by the muted bombast swirling around it; his almost too-predictable imagery almost makes the melodies in which they’re imbedded seem too pretty. In the end, though, those almosts make a big difference. With an artistic rigor rare among CCM singer-songwriters, he reins in not only his sentimentalism but his artistic rigor too.
What do you give the technology-idolizing age that has everything? How about an entire album of original, acoustic gospel blues, sung and played with a true believer’s late-night intimacy with life’s big ups and downs? Cut it anywhere, it bleeds the truth. “My God came to earth a humble man,” sings Phelps. “It was part of the divine master plan. When they crucified our Savior, they set the captives free. / Death would lose dominion over you and over me.” So far, there’s no app for that.
If Toby McKeehan isn’t necessarily improving with age, he’s certainly not getting worse. “Lose Myself” is as rousing as prime U2, “Me Without You” as catchy as prime Katy Perry, right down to the perfect pitch of its faith-tweaked colloquialisms (“You had me at ‘Believe’”). And, of course, McKeehan sings better. Yet, masterly and exuberant though his sonics are, it’s the occasional emergence of a maturity becoming a man of McKeehan’s years (47) that will stop the jaded in their tracks. “Family” might even make them cry.
"[R]eligious songs is what I wanted to do," Bob Dylan recently told Rolling Stone, speaking of his new album, Tempest (Columbia). "That takes a lot more concentration … than it does with a record like I ended up with." So what kind of record has Dylan ended up with? "Dark" is getting a lot of traction, but darkness has suffused his music for 50 years. One might as well call his voice rough.
Maybe his comments were a ruse. The ostensibly secular seven-minute John Lennon tribute ("Roll On, John") and 14-minute Titanic tribute ("Tempest") notwithstanding, Tempest includes a significant smattering of religious language. "I'm sworn to uphold the lies of God," Dylan sings in "Pay in Blood," echoing 1 Corinthians 1:25. "You can put me out in front of a firing squad." And later: "Man can't live by bread alone. / I pay in blood but not my own." One can't help wondering Whose blood he's paying with.