Bob Dylan Together Through Life(Columbia) Buy it from Insound
What do you do after you release a trio of critically acclaimed, respectably selling records, that have a large part of the music-loving public singing praises to your genius? A younger Dylan hopped on his bike and promptly flipped it over, providing a convenient way to break the mounting commitments that were threatening to overtake him. His next musical move was to retreat to The Band’s rec room and haphazardly record a group of songs that wrestled with the American myth in the most enigmatic and light-hearted way possible. Dylan always took his humor very seriously. When he decided to actually release some material it was in late 1967 with the sparse John Wesley Harding, which may have been an artistic success but absolutely sent the message, “I want off this particular merry-go-round.” Well, now there’s a lot less to lose for an older and wiser Dylan, and he’s learned to take the ebbs and flows of public acceptance and rejection in stride. So what we are presented with this time is still a retrenchment of sorts, a lessening of ambition perhaps, or maybe just a diminution of energy. Whatever it is, it is not the equal of either Modern Times or Love and Theft, which was probably asking too much in the first place. On the other hand it is also not the trainwreck of Self Portrait or the barren landscape of his 80’s output. Together Through Life is a pretty darn good record from every perspective except the one that looks back at what immediately preceded it.
It’s not hard to hear what’s missing. Despite the usual crack band behind him and the notable addition of Mike Campbell on guitar and David Hidalgo on accordion, the grooves don’t dig as deep and neither do the lyrics. The last time he collaborated this extensively with another lyricist was with Jacques Levy on Desire and that led to missteps like the wrongheaded Joey (coincidentally, or not, that sound of that record was also heavily influenced by the sound of an added instrument – a violin in that case). Now it’s with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, and what we seem to get when Dylan collaborates is not some super amalgam, but rather watered-down Dylan. So the jokes don’t always sting like they should and there’s nothing on a grand scale to compare with the epic Ain’t Talkin’, or even Highlands.
But enough of this quibbling. A good Dylan record is better than 90% of the music out there at any given time and this is a good Dylan record. While there is a distinctly bordertown feeling to these songs, mainly due to Hidalgo’s presence, we still find our hero mining the past for inspiration. Whether it’s the Chess blues, Marty Robbins or Sam Cooke records, he’s sticking with what he knows and loves and musically it continues to work for him. For those of us who love the simple, unpretentious traditional forms, Dylan is now the keeper of the flame. Homage is not his thing. Lyrically and vocally he is always au courant, even when he is tipping his hat to a time that no longer exists. His is a modern sensibility; it always has been. In fact it may be more accurate to say that our modern sensibility is Dylan’s, such has been his influence (kids, ponder this statement and write a short essay making a case for it, for extra credit. If it sounds overblown and ridiculous, you don’t know your pop culture history). So what is occupying the sharp minds of Dylan and Hunter these days? In a word, Romance. Love songs abound and the joys and worries of the heart are front and center. This makes it a little more conceptually coherent than his other recent albums, as he and Hunter tackle the subject from a variety of angles; from the straight ahead declaration that starts the record, “Well I love you pretty baby”, to the bitter resignation of Forgetful Heart. In that sense this is all familiar territory for Dylanphiles and so there is little to surprise us. But it still makes for an enjoyable romp down on the border.
I honestly had no idea what to expect from this record. I wouldn’t have been shocked if Dylan took up Buddhism and started chanting as a way to further confound the critics ready to heap more praise on him. My guess is these songs were written fairly quickly as I get the feeling that he’s not trying to compete with his recent successes. Only a few songs (Beyond Here Lie’s Nothin’, Shake Shake Mama, and I Feel a Change Comin’ On) really jump out of the grooves and the rest sounds like our greatest living songwriter coasting a bit – which is a whole lot better than not giving a shit (Self Portrait) or flailing around aimlessly (pick an 80s record). He’s going to be 68 this week, and if that doesn’t give you pause contemplating the fleeting nature of beauty in this world, I don’t what will.18 May, 2009 - 18:14 — Alan Shulman