Together Through Life, Bob Dylan’s third album of the 21st century, was released on Tuesday. I’ve been listening to it pretty regularly because, though it didn’t seem like the kind of thing I most wanted to hear when I first heard it Tues-Wed, it has come to dominate the mood in these uneasy early spring days.
'Beyond here lies nothin’ -- nothin’ done and nothin’ said.' The first song is one reason I keep playing the album: it has a no-nonsense, quick grab that doesn’t let up. It has the feel of a song that sums up a lot, but without the kind of lyrical brilliance of a song like 'Times Have Changed.' Instead, it offers a groove, and horns, and Dylan’s voice, in its shrugging, worn-out grimness, seems just the right mood: no quarter asked, none given.
'I’m always on my guard, admitting life is hard' The second track has a bit of a ‘Mood Indigo’ feel -- mellow, aged, wizened even. This is Dylan in some old crooner incarnation, the old crooner on hard times (just listen to that cracked voice), but still able to put it across sweet when called for. Time to follow those spotlight stepping stones off-stage, folks. He even hums as he goes...
'I just want to say that Hell is my wife’s home town.' Delivered almost with a carny bark, with a nice little walking blues riff puttering around the lyrics, this is a stand-out. Very amusing, in a style that Dylan rarely attempts -- but think of something like 'Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat' for its deadpan throwaway jabs. And the little chuckles that surface in the fade are priceless. Willie Dixon, bless him, gets credit on the tune, and I suspect Bob’s delivery is a bit of a tip of the hat as well -- he's never sounded more like an old bluesman.
'If You Ever Go to Houston' was the first song to bore me, and though I’ve become a bit more positive about its midtempo step-out, I can’t reconcile myself to that incessant accordian. And this is the place to note that on this album David Hidalgo’s accordian is way too out-front a good part of the time; when it’s in the background, it’s acceptable, but when it carries the tune, as here, its drone makes me want to drop off. (I have nothing against the instrument itself, since Tom Waits and Richard Thompson and the Mekons have all used it quite effectively.)
Closing ‘the side’ is 'Forgetful Heart' (‘lost your power of recall / every little detail you don’t remember at all') which has some of the ominous sound of songs like 'Going, Going, Gone' or 'Not Dark Yet,' helped along by Mike Campbell’s brooding guitar -- nothing flash, nothing stabbing, just a long meditative scowl. 'Can’t take much more / why can’t we love like we did before' -- the lyrics are as if penned to one’s own recalcitrant seat of emotions, and ends with the album’s best couplet: 'The door has closed forevermore / if indeed there ever was a door.'
Start the next side with one of those peppy little blues struts that seem to me must be much more fun to play than they are to listen to: 'Jolene' doesn’t get up to much, but it does resurrect the ghost of Jerry Garcia a bit. Bear in mind that Garcia’s longtime lyricist Robert Hunter collaborated with Dylan on all but one track; this is the song where that’s very much evident, as it’s easy to imagine Jerry cruising his way through this one, getting everybody to do their best 'and you’re the queen' steps.
'This Dream of You' is the song sans Hunter. This is one where the accordian is really necessary to the feel Dylan goes for: it has to sound like a night wandering through its courses at the local cantina, or is that bistro, with a wide-eyed singer watching those ‘shadows that seem to know it all.’ There are a few moments where a big production hook seems ready to jump out, but Dylan keeps it close to his chest, nothing that would embarrass a coterie of locals watching another sad sack eat his heart out.
'Shake Shake Mama, raise your voice and pray / if you’re goin' on home, best go the shortest way.' Yeah, this is one of those songs from the old blues becomes rock’n’roll era that Dylan has always been partial to ('Outlaw Blues'; 'Obviously Five Believers'); tune makes me think of 'my little baby loves shortnin’ shortnin.'
'I Feel a Change Comin’ On' is swanky and breezy -- think 'I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,' from the old days -- and hard not to like (except for that damned tweeting accordian), especially when Bob lets us in on the following: 'I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice.' Yeah.
In closing, Bob picks on one of the most mindless sayings of the post-‘80s generation: 'It’s All Good.' It’s easy to see without looking too far that not much is really good, and Bob lets us take that in as he piles up the dysfunction, then maybe ribs us with the thought that watching it all go down is, indeed, pretty fucking good, but the song never really goes for the jugular, the way something like 'Jokerman' did back in the ‘80s. Too many pulled punches.
Talk about me, babe, if you must
Throw out the dirt, pile on the dust
I’d do the same thing, if I could,
You know what they say, they say it’s all good.
The album is more or less all good too, though none of it’s great -- nothing comes close to the major splendor of 'Red River Shore,' a track abandoned and then allowed to surface on 2007's Tell Tale Signs. As the third in the Jack Frost trilogy (Love and Theft, 2001; Modern Times, 2006; Together Through Life, 2009), it’s the least of the three, but is the one that seems to hearken back most to the Dylan albums of yore (vinyl days, in other words). Think of an album like New Morning (1970) or Planet Waves (1974) or Under the Red Sky (1990), albums that have a characteristic vibe, but aren’t often revisited as major moments in the career (though Planet Waves was Dylan’s first number one album, largely due to the comeback tour with The Band that promoted it). Together Through Life is quick, cool, fun, and, as the man said at the close of 'Highlands,' 'that’s good enough for now.'