I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I'm reading James Joyce/Some people tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice," Bob Dylan sings in a leathery growl, capturing the essence of his forthcoming studio album – raw-country love songs, sly wordplay and the wounded state of the nation – in "I Feel a Change Coming On," one of the record's 10 new originals.
Set for late April, the as-yet-untitled album arrives a few months after Dylan's outtakes collection Tell Tale Signs, and it "came as a surprise," says a source close to Dylan's camp. Last year, filmmaker Olivier Dahan, who directed the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic, La Vie en Rose, approached Dylan about writing a song for his next feature. Dylan responded with "Life Is Hard," a bleak ballad with mandolin, pedal steel and him singing in a dark, clear voice, "The evening winds are still/I've lost the way and will." (The song appears in the film My Own Love Song, starring Renée Zellweger.)
Inspired, Dylan kept writing and recording songs with his road band and guests, with Los Lobos' David Hidalgo rumored on accordion. Dylan produced the album under his usual pseudonym, Jack Frost.
The disc has the live-in-the-studio feel of Dylan's last two studio records, 2001's Love and Theft and 2006's Modern Times, but with a seductive border-cafe feel (courtesy of the accordion on every track) and an emphasis on struggling-love songs. The effect – in the opening shuffle, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," the Texas-dancehall jump of "If You Ever Go to Houston" and the waltz "This Dream of You" – is a gnarly turn on early-1970s records like New Morning and Planet Waves.
Dylan makes references to the national chaos, as on the viciously funny slow blues "My Wife's Home Town" ("State gone broke, the county's dry/ Don't be lookin' at me with that evil eye"), culminating in the deceptive rolling rock of "It's All Good." Against East L.A. accordion and a snake's nest of guitars, Dylan tells you how bad things are – "Brick by brick, they tear you down/A teacup of water is enough to drown" – then ices each verse with the title line, a pithy shot of sneering irony and calming promise. "You would never expect the record after Modern Times to sound like this," the source says. "Bob takes all of those disparate elements you hear and puts them into a track. But you can't put your finger on it – 'It sounds exactly like that.' That's why he's so original."
This story is from the March 19th, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.