Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Together Through Life by Bob Dylan

On a beautiful late summer day eight years ago, Bob Dylan released one of his greatest albums on the same day 19 men with boxcutters changed the New York skyline and the world. It was one of those strange incidences of synchronicity, much as this week, when Dylan again released an album at the same time Air Force One inadvertently made New Yorkers run for cover again. In the same spirit, "Together Through Life" shows all the earmarks of Dylan's late career renaissance, but only serves to remind the listener of the uncanny greatness of this latest, unexpected phase.

At the end of the sixties, when Dylan had produced six records in a row redefining both folk and rock music, he produced "Nashville Skyline," a short, spare record with carefully crafted, seemingly benign and banal love songs. While it wasn't "Blonde On Blonde," it was one of his most delightful and unexpected works. "Together Through Life" plays in much the same way, the music flitting between Tex Mex and Zydeco, not quite reaching the level of "Modern Times" or "Love and Theft" but still staying with the listener long after listening.

The album opens in a similar vein as Dylan's last three, with the haunting "Beyond Here Lies Nothing." The tone of the song is the same as most of Dylan's late work - hard-edged, bluesy, brimming with mocking pessimism. But the words reveal a desperate love song, frustrated by a seemingly finite future. From there, Dylan progresses into "Life Is Hard," and the character of the record begins to reveal itself. It is an old-fashioned crooner's ode, much like "By and By" or "Spirit On the Water," with the melody hovering high just on the cusp of Dylan's haggard husky whispering croak. Maybe he does, as he later sings, have "the blood of the land in his voice." His narrator simply wants "strength to fight the world outside."

From there, the record becomes an exercise in fun, revealed most starkly as Dylan laughs (!) toward the end of "My Wife's Home Town." Many of these songs resemble, in structure, rhythm and lyrics, those of the past 10 years in Dylan's catalogue. Lyrics seem lifted from the obscure tunes he spins on "Theme Time Radio Hour." Impressionistic thoughts fill the air. He explores familiar themes of haunted, frustrated love in "Jolene." His songs seem divorced from time, as the hero of "If You Ever Go to Houston" reveals he was nearly killed in the Mexican War. The melody of "Forgetful Heart" reminds one of the meandering menace of "Ain't Talkin'" only at a softer, lighter pitch.

The man who once sang "The Times They Are A'Changin'" now gives the world "I Feel A Change Comin' On," not a Obamaian anthem but a personal song about individual happiness. Dylan doesn't do utopian dreams anymore, if he ever did. "We've got so much in common/We strive for the same ends/And I just can't wait for us to become friends." Billy Joe Shaver and James Joyce get called out, and William Shakespeare quoted.

But Dylan wouldn't be Dylan without a tough, sarcastic jeremiad to the present age, which closes the record, "It's All Good." This song will remind listeners of similar tales of frustration, resignation, alienation, such as "Everything Is Broken" and "Things Have Changed." No one seems to care that no one seems to care anymore. But Dylan keeps smiling, it seems, as the lies and lives pile up.

If this record lacks one thing, it is the usual veiled spirituality of his earlier albums, the pseudo-Gospel that has dusted his music since his conversion in the late seventies. That is, unless you count the fact that he identifies Hell as his wife's hometown. Or perhaps the border longing of "This Dream Of You" isn't so much a love song to a woman as much as Someone else, as he speaks of his "earthly death." When Dylan speaks of crossing over, it usually isn't the Rio Grande he means, but either the River Styx, or the River Jordan. His mood is all important.

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