Together Through Life
In 2000, Bob Dylan won an Academy Award for "Things Have Changed", a pop-blues number he wrote for the>"/>
Bob Dylan Together Through Life
In 2000, Bob Dylan won an Academy Award for "Things Have Changed", a pop-blues number he wrote for the Wonder Boys soundtrack. Ever since then, the little golden Oscar statue has joined him onstage, perched atop his amplifier. When I first noticed the Oscar at Dylan's Portland State University show in 2005, I took it as a joke. After all, Dylan always been possessed with a wry sense of humor--what good was an Oscar if he couldn't show it off like a kid tacking "A+" homework to his parent's refrigerator? But listening to his new album Together Through Life, it struck me that the Oscar might actually represent something about the music he's been making so far this century. I played the album back-to-back with 2006's Modern Times and 2001's Love and Theft and it all came together--21st Century Dylan has been about creating a fictional America, his own Invisible Republic, if you will. And his songs have been nothing if not cinematic.
Together Through Life was made because Dylan was inspired to continue writing and recording after penning a number for Olivier Dahan's forthcoming film, My Own Love Song. "Then the record sort of took its own direction," Dylan told journalist Bill Flanagan. As a result, we have ten songs that evoke imagery of dusty Texas towns, hot August nights, and lively juke joints, each scene rendered like a sun-bleached black and white photograph that could've been taken in either the 1950s or the 1890s, its hard to say.
Produced by Dylan (AKA Jack Frost), the tone of Together Through Life is raw. Whereas Dylan's vocals were muddy and smoky on recent albums, they are presented here so that we hear every rip and tear in his throat. Critics love dismissing Dylan's voice these days as little more than a battered croak, but he's obviously proud of it (not to mention, after five decades of cigarettes and no sign of lung cancer, he should be!) The way he takes advantage of its deep scars and hardened edges on Together Through Life, I can't help but think of Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino--both men realize they are too old to play the young rebel, but are just wise enough to play the squinty-eyed outlaw.
Dylan's clawed vocal chords are the ideal instrument for this latest batch of songs, all of which take place in the wild mid-apocalyptic America he first introduced on Love and Theft's centerpiece "High Water". But instead of playing the prophet of impending doom, Dylan plays the drifter on Together Through Life--he's Mark Twain with a blues band, observing the aftermath. "State gone broke/ The county's dry/ Don't be looking at me with that evil eye," Dylan snarls on the Willie Dixon shuffler "My Wife's Home Town". His wife's hometown, by the way, is Hell, but you get the sense that Hell could very well be Texas, as Dylan later spins a dangerous outlaw-blues yarn with "If You Ever Go To Houston."
For all its wickedness, Together Through Life is a surprisingly sunny record. While much of this can be attributed to Los Lobos accordionist David Hidalgo (who weaves a light-hearted breeze throughout every song), the mood of each Dylan album ultimately depends on the mood of Dylan himself. Normally as sour as a tablespoon of vinegar, he instead sounds half-drunk on lust and romance for much of Together Through Life. Accompanied by sentimental mandolin on the weepy ballad "Life Is Hard", Dylan breaks apart words like he's shedding a tear for each syllable ("My dreams are locked and barred/Ad-mit-ting life is hard") while on the swampy "Shake Shake Mama", he delivers comic-blues from the groin ("Some of you women really know your stuff/ But your clothes are all torn and your language is kinda rough"). Scattered throughout are bar-band romps ("Jolene"), misty-eyed romanticism ("Forgetful Heart"), and mariachi blues ("This Dream of You").
But don't think the man has gone soft. Gloom-and-doom abounds on upbeat album closer "It's All Good", a song that suggests Dylan sees America as little more than a crooked place run by dastardly politicians, twisted sheriffs, and godless swindlers. "Big politicians telling lies/ restaurant kitchen full of flies," he sings over the John Lee Hooker boogie. That Dylan views America as little more than a morally corrupt wasteland is nothing new. But the punchline chorus of "It's all good" offers a new spin on his vision, one that is a fitting refrain for our country's current era. However, he doesn't sing the words reassuringly. Instead, it comes off like an accusation, a cruel joke from a wise old man who knows better than to be optimistic about anything...especially a young president in a dirty old town like Washington D.C.
After only a handful of listens, Together Through Life comes off as the flabbiest of Dylan's recent work. The lyrics seem undercooked, the narratives less cohesive. Strange, then, that 9 of these 10 songs were co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, a man I rank among the most underrated American wordsmiths. But who knows what Dylan and Hunter were aiming for, lyrically. Maybe the point was to shoot for the everyman populism of Muddy Waters and Hank Williams. Dylan and Hunter overstuffed the album with no-brainers like "oh, well I love you pretty baby", out of which emerge small slivers of poetry. "Dreams never worked for me anyway/ Even when they did come true," Dylan sings on "Feel A Change Comin' On". It takes a seasoned master like Dylan to pull off a line so obvious yet so chilling true.