Bob Dylan: “Together Through Life”
“Life is hard,” intones a somber Bob Dylan, two songs into album #33. Damn straight, Bob; times are tough generally, and by the sounds of things they’re not much better even if you’re the Voice of a Generation, universally considered to be the most incalculably influential artist in all of pop music, a living legend in the midst of a bona fide late-career renaissance. Given both the high quality and the ceaseless praise accorded to his last three albums– 1997’s Time Out of Mind, 2001’s Love & Theft, and 2006’s Modern Times, to say nothing of high-profile documentaries and biopics, well-received turns as a memoir-writer and radio DJ, and last year’s monumental archival release Tell Tale Signs— one was beginning to think Dylan was at the point in his career where he could release pretty much anything and be showered in adoration for it. But what can you say? Expectations are a bitch, even five decades into the game, and no matter what you’re anticipating Together Through Life to be, it ain’t it.
The record’s first song, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin,'” was released several weeks ahead of the full album; it served as a bit of a tease then, and so it does here as well, opening the record with a sly reference to the “boulevard of broken cars.” And that’s about as far as Dylan goes into discussing the perilous days in which we live: The most off-handed of references, and then nothing. Even with a song called “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” Together Through Life is an album made with stubborn refusal to comment on these modern times, as though the Voice of a Generation can’t be bothered to sing about such trivial matters as a historic depression and a crisis of capitalism. And on some level, it’s probably wrong of us to expect him to: He is, after all, only an artist, albeit an artist like no other, and it seems fair to say that he’s done more than anyone to galvanize the artistic community and focus its powers on enacting social change. Really, “The Times They are A-Changin'” alone pretty much earns him a free pass.
Besides, anyone who knows anything about Dylan knows that he’s never been big on doing what’s expected of him, and, after several years of critical adoration and commercial success, it’s not too surprising to find him shaking things up a bit. Call him Judas if you must, but this is what makes him Dylan: At a time when most expected him to offer a manifesto or a State of the Union address, he instead shows his road band the door, invites a new cast of players into the studio, and leads them through a gently-strutting set of whimsical country-blues songs– co-written with The Grateful Dead’s Robert Hunter, no less! It’s his jauntiest, breeziest set in years, an album that seems as unconcerned with commenting on world affairs as it is shoring up the master’s legacy. If Times Out of Mind was his comeback, Love & Theft his masterful display of his full powers of depth and expression, and Modern Times a weighty testament to his status as rock’s great elder statesman, Together Through Life is a vexingly casual affair that seems like it was recorded for no one more than for Dylan himself.
Might as well just call it what it is: Another weird curveball in a career that thrives on ’em, and another strange riddle for Dylanologists to sort out. What it ultimately means within the broader context of Dylan’s body of work– if indeed it means anything at all– there’s no telling, at least not yet. For now, this much seems important: It bears fleeting similarity to several of his past albums, but ultimately doesn’t sound much like any of them. It drinks from the same classic-blues well as Modern Times, but it’s a markedly simpler, more spirited affair. At times it shakes and sways like Love & Theft, but not with abandon or creative gusto so much as casual nonchalance. The presence of David Hidalgo on accordion– adding what critics seem intent on calling a “border cafe” feel” to most of these songs– recalls Scarlet Rivera’s violin work that added shading and character to Desire, and indeed, this album is similarly unassuming, though more focused, less varied, and lacking the big, major highlights.
But perhaps the best way into it is to remember that, in recent years, Dylan has become rock’s great allusionist, and he continues the trend here. Several years back, a few bone-headed journalists brought charges of plagiarism against Dylan for his lyrics on Love & Theft, simply because he borrowed many of his lyrics from ancient poetry, mythology, American folk songs and short stories. It was a profoundly misguided attempt at hero-assassination that thankfully didn’t come up when Modern Times was released, despite the fact that half the songs on that album were essentially rewrites of classic American blues numbers. Dylan’s gift, at least at this stage in the game, lies in his ability to effortlessly conjure the ghosts of the past and bid them to speak in some strange, timeless language– to stitch together, from the pieces of our cultural history, a story that’s both very old and completely Dylan’s. And that’s what happens here: Together Through Life is, if nothing else, a Valentine to the music that Dylan loves, drawing inspiration from the warm sounds of the old Chess recordings (“Shake Shake Mama” is pure Howlin’ Wolf) and offering sly revisions of electric blues, dirt-road country, and pre-war parlor songs.
Dylan, more than any other living/working songwriter, guards the doorway to an old, mythic America that’s as old as the nation itself and as real and visceral today as it’s ever been– and of course, when you consider this album under the full weight of history that it bears, it suddenly opens up not as some artifact of the past, but as a commentary on the present, as seen through the tropes and tall tales that have always carried the seed of the American story. Dylan re-introduces us to that great archetypal blues character, the devil woman, in “My Wife’s Hometown,” and she becomes a presence of deception and decay that resonates during these fractious times. When he tells us that he fought in the Mexican War, it’s as though he sees our entire history in front of him at once, and his barb about a “clown” politician could have been written at literally any point of the last two hundred years and sound perfectly apropos. And when he indulged in his fascination with lovestruck parlor crooning, as in “Life is Hard” and “Forgetful Heart,”he taps into a decidedly American sense of idealism– a hope rooted in romance that sees us through dark days, an optimism that belongs as much to this age as to ages past. In the final song, “It’s All Good,” he filters the modern parlance through the lens of history and turns it on its side, capturing a timeless sense of the absurd.
He is, to be sure, playing with expectations, but he’s playing with history and language and myth, as well– and he’s obviously tickled to death to be doing it: Dylan sounds strong and engaged, and he’s never made an album as rich in playfulness and wonder, with the harder-rocking numbers and the more genteel ballads imbued with the same sort of whimsy. Those expecting a last will and testament will be suitably shocked to find, in its place, a party, one filled with all the darkness and hope of the age in which it was conceived, and in which history comes crashing into the present day. In other words: It’s a sly, winking album from an artist who knows what he’s doing and doesn’t much care if it meets our approval. From Bob Dylan, what else could we possibly expect?