Bob Dylan catches a 10-song case of the blues

by Dan DeLuca

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

27 April 2009

cover art

Bob Dylan

Together Through Life

US: 28 Apr 2009
UK: 27 Apr 2009

Review [26.Apr.2009]

Back in 2006, when everybody else was pretending that everything was OK, Bob Dylan knew better.

“The buying power of the proletariat has gone down,” he croaked on “Workingman’s Blues #2,” making like a cross between Karl Marx and Merle Haggard on his album “Modern Times.” “Money’s getting shallow and weak.”

And now that everything — or the global economy, at least — has gone bad, Dylan is singing a song on his new album, “Together Through Life” (Columbia, 3 out of 4 stars), called “It’s All Good.” No need to fret, however, Bob-watchers: The bilious bard has not turned into a happy-go-lucky optimist.

To the contrary: “It’s All Good” is as snide and sneering a song as you’d expect Dylan to write about an annoyingly overused phrase that attempts to keep trouble at arm’s length.

“Big politician, tellin’ lies / Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies,” he rhymes, detailing a world where “a teacup full of water is enough to drown,” and that, no matter how many times he repeats the title, seems to be headed straight to hell. (Which, by the way, is also where the spouse of the henpecked singer on “My Wife’s Home Town” resides.)

On “Together Through Life” — an uneven but engagingly loose 10-song set that doesn’t quite measure up to either “Modern Times” or “Love and Theft” (2001) — Dylan has come down with a case of the blues.

The Chicago blues, to be precise. “My Wife’s Home Town,” one of a handful of throwaway cuts, pulls so blatantly from Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” that the bass-playing Chess Records house songwriter is given a co-author credit.

And “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” Dylan’s leadoff track, is a kind of blues samba that specifically conjures up the spooky echo that distinguished the great work done by Windy City bluesmen Otis Rush and Magic Sam for Cobra Records in the mid-‘50s. (Like much of the album, the song features Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion.)

Dylan, of course, is a born borrower, a genius of creative thievery, as well as just a plain old genius. Back in the day, he took what he needed from Woody Guthrie, and on “Modern Times,” he seemed to have lifted from the Confederate poet Henry Timrod and the Roman poet Ovid.

The cover of “Together Through Life” sports a 1959 Bruce Davidson photo of a couple making out in the back of a car that was previously used on the late Larry Brown’s story collection “Big Bad Love.”

And the album’s title, it has been widely speculated, pulls from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass poem “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame,” which does, indeed, include the words “together through life.” More to the point, it speaks of “the brotherhood of lovers” who remain unfaltering in their affection and faithfulness “through youth and through middle and old age,” and whose enduring bond fills Whitman with “the bitterest envy.”

Now, that’s a point of view that I’d call Dylanesque. For, while “Together Through Life” has more than its share of tender moments, and Dylan remains, at heart, a romantic (both upper- and lower-case), his third self-produced studio album also delivers the nasty sting of love gone bad and hope denied.

Sometimes, his songs are bold enough to link his internal artistic life with the nation’s tragic history. “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m reading James Joyce,” he reveals on the easy-rolling “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” which is essentially his Facebook profile in song. “Some people they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”

Other times, his miseries are more private. “Put my tears in a bottle, screw the top on tight,” he groans in a voice that grows ever more gravelly, but no less expressive as Hidalgo’s squeezebox wheezes in the border-crossing norteno “If You Ever Go to Houston.” And in the grimy mood piece “Forgetful Heart,” he’s at his most powerfully grim, in a song that questions the singer’s own ability to love: “The door has closed forevermore, if indeed there ever was a door.”

All this might make “Together Through Life,” which features several songs cowritten with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, sound like an unrelentingly bleak endeavor.

But that is by no means the case with the album, which, like his previous two discs, was produced by Dylan under the pseudonym Jack Frost. Dylan’s ‘50s-era version of the 12-bar blues harks back to a time when the bruising, electrified sound was jukebox-targeted dance music of the slow and speeded-up varieties. Upbeat numbers like “Shake Shake Mama” and “It’s All Good” sound delighted to be hurtling into the darkness.

Some of the slower songs drag, particularly the six-minute “This Dream of You.” That can’t be said, however, of the decorous parlor ballad “Life Is Hard,” which was written for French “La Vie en Rose” director Olivier Dahan’s forthcoming movie “My Own Love Song,” and whose composition led to the songwriting that resulted in “Together Through Life.”

Speaking of “Life Is Hard,” Dylan recently told interviewer Bill Flanagan that, “today, the mad rush of the world would trample all over delicate music like that ... That type of music existed in a more timeless state of life.”

Increasingly, the now-68-year-old Dylan makes music that outwardly has less and less to do with “modern times.” “Together Through Life” continues that trend, and though it’s not the strongest of his 21st-century work, it still demonstrates Dylan’s ability to make music that connects with a resonating past, while speaking to the here and now.

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