Recently, Bob Dylan released his 33rd studio album, Together Through Life. At age 68, he is the oldest artist to debut at #1 on the Billboard charts. This feat may have less to do with a spike in Dylan’s popularity, and more to do with having fans so old that they actually pay for their music. But for a Dylan record, Together Through Life is an oddball. It feels spontaneous, dashed off, nearly weightless.
What’s he doing romping through the border country, having fun? Shouldn’t Dylan be building up to something? With the records he made from 1997’s Time Out of Mind through 2006’s Modern Times, Dylan crafted a gloomy, serious third act—the one that would presumably end in his death. But Dylan, of course, doesn’t care for our expectations, or the narratives we craft to explain and contain him.
Together Through Life is an example of Dylan’s “late style”. The idea of late style was elaborated in a posthumous collection of essays by critic Edward Said. Lateness, according to Said, is characterized by a kind of artistic innovation in the midst of physical infirmity. Lateness is a denial of the unifying artistic gesture, the stubborn refusal to issue a final proclamation. You can hear it on Together Through Life in Dylan’s smirking refrain, “It’s all good”, as he recites a miscellany of doom and gloom. It’s all over the 17 surreal minutes of “Highlands” on Time Out of Mind.
Surreal is a useful term to describe Dylan’s recent emergence in the cultural mainstream as a chart-topper, GRAMMY winner, and pitchman for the likes of Victoria’s Secret and Pepsi. Just over ten years ago, Dylan was considered washed-up, having a pretty crappy couple of decades, even by his own reckoning. Though it seems impossible to fathom now, his son Jakob was giving old Bob a run for his money, selling tons of records that were more accessible and vigorous than his father.
But then came Time Out of Mind, seemingly out of nowhere. The story has it that Dylan was holed up in a Minnesota snowstorm and the songs just poured out. But from the shuddering organ and creaky declamations of “Love Sick”, there was something markedly different about Dylan. He seemed to be writing from beyond the grave, trying to get into heaven. Q Magazine’s review cautioned, “Don’t expect too many follow ups.” Dylan Internet fansites, then in their infancy, abbreviated the album’s title: TOOM.
It seemed to make sense when, just before the album’s release, Dylan got gravely ill with a heart infection. People assumed that his illness influenced the morbid themes on TOOM, but the album had been written and recorded a year earlier. Nonetheless, the scare seems to have caught Dylan’s attention, and the pace of new releases, both archival and new, has quickened in the last decade.
Age and illness seems to have nudged Dylan out of any sense of being part of contemporary culture. He dresses like a cowboy; he makes old-timey music; he plays other people’s old-timey music on the radio. These late affectations recall Theodor Adorno’s loathing of the zeitgeist: “lateness for him equaled regression, from now to back then.” This regression was keyed to a sense of living too long, “surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal.” By 1997, Dylan had already been in the music business for nearly 40 years, and had been written off at least half a dozen times. What did he want with the music of the day? The top albums in 1997 were the debut of the Spice Girls and the soundtrack to Space Jam.
Under these circumstances, it made sense for the already-cantankerous Dylan to start telling it exactly like he felt it: “I’m tired of talking / Tired of trying to explain / My attempts to please you / They were all in vain”. Age and experience liberated Dylan, who became what Said called “a figure of lateness itself, an untimely, scandalous, even catastrophic commentator on the present.” For his follow-up album, Love and Theft, Dylan threw off the reins. He produced it himself, and used his touring band rather than studio musicians.
The result is a reflection and a refraction of various music traditions. Rollicking blues share space with Tin Pan Alley and heartfelt Americana ballads. Dylan got busted for borrowing material from an obscure Japanese yakuza novel, but the chord progressions are similarly, though less obviously, borrowed. They sound like nothing Dylan had done before.
Dylan was liberated, loose-lipped. He started a radio show, wrote a book, and a movie. The reticence and blockages of the 1980s and 1990s eased up, making it possible to encounter Dylan in all sorts of bizarre places. But this new accessibility had its down sides. Instead of capping his career with Time Out of Mind, Dylan just kept going.
This bad habit of outlasting himself was nothing new. In 1965, Dylan notoriously performed with an electric backing band. He deliberately killed off his protest singer image, exciting the ire of fans around the world. He released the famous trio of albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde through ’65 and ’66, cementing a new identity as a raucous rock-n-roller. But Dylan outlived this version of himself, too—by the following year, he had retreated from the spotlight and began to release countrified albums backed by the Band and Nashville veterans. The various deaths and rebirths continued through the gospel albums, the middling ‘80s tours and records, and on to the apotheosis of 1997. For an appropriately disorienting view of Dylan’s changes, look at Todd Haynes’s film I’m Not There. Through it all, there was Dylan playing nightly on his 20-years-and-counting “never ending tour”—lateness in motion.
All of this variety makes it hard work being a Dylan fan. He seems to want to be taken completely seriously and not seriously at all, or at least not literally. In a recent interview with Bill Flanagan, Dylan expressed relief that his audience now understands “if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification.” It’s difficult, impossible maybe, not to read into Dylan’s compositions, from 1965 or 2009. But it’s healthy for him and for us that the practice of Dylanology is on the wane.
Luckily, Together Through Life doesn’t ask for our deep thoughts. It offers no summing up, no coherent gesture of closure. Instead, it fits into a subset of light and lithe Dylan albums. Together Through Life, in tone and texture, is more at home alongside New Morning and Planet Waves from the early 1970s. Said would consider it Dylan’s right to “the episodic character, its apparent disregard for [his career’s] own continuity.” After 50 years, what’s left to prove?
Instead, Dylan is keeping good company. He’s jamming with Mike Campbell from the Heartbreakers and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Both men provide supple, gorgeous accompaniment. Dylan’s company includes other figures of lateness: he’s “listening to Billie Joe Shaver / And reading James Joyce”. Both men are deep listeners to the resonant frequencies of their respective cultures: Shaver, the outlaw country hero from Corsicana, Texas, and James Joyce, the weatherman exiled to Treiste. Dylan’s a deep listener too. The influence of the past that goes back to his earliest cribbing of country lyrics has moved beyond affectation and imitation. Dylan, in 2009, is maybe what he was always intended to be: a bona fide blues man, honky-tonk stomper, and country balladeer.
And he keeps going. A stylistic inversion here, a quizzical choice there, it’s all in a day’s work. This summer he takes to the road again, with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, touring the nation’s minor-league stadiums. To listen to him tell it, Dylan has no choice: “I got a restless fever burnin’ in my brain / Got to keep right forward, can’t spoil the game / The same way I’ll leave here will be the way that I came”. That’s more than you can say for most of us, half his age, and trying to keep up.