Cryptic hints and odd rumors ramping up to a bizarre, rushed release. When you think about it in the context of Bob Dylan, maybe it isn’t so unusual after all.
It took Bob Dylan five years to produce a follow-up to 2001’s masterful Love & Theft. Now, a mere three years after Modern Times, we are about to be blessed with another studio album from the 67-year-old bard. This time around, though, the path leading up to yesterday's announcement has been much more interesting.
Shortly before Modern Times was announced, the Dylan community was abuzz due to an article about him and his touring band rehearsing for a new studio album at the historic Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York. That’s about all we heard.
Speculation ran rampant. Wouldn’t it make more sense that they were rehearsing for an upcoming tour? Was the source -- someone who worked at the theater -- even reliable? Was there even a new album coming out? I remember a later report with a quote from someone who had heard part of the rehearsals mentioning a "Hawaiian-sounding" guitar. For some people, tidbits such as this were taken as gospel. For others, they appeared to be obvious lies. In retrospect, this lucky soul had probably heard one of the first incarnations of “Beyond the Horizon".
In the past few months, the rumor mill started up once again, and things reached a fever pitch. Fake song titles from the rumored new Dylan album and news reports on Internet message boards have been multiplying like kudzu vine, causing hardcore Dylan fans much undue worry and stress.
By my estimation, if we hadn’t received two official reports from major publications, the Dylan community would have imploded, along with all the other tertiary publications that had either mentioned the rumors or reported on them as out-and-out fact.
The initial rumors of a new album came in late January from a couple of established names on the message boards. These rumors floated some names of possible players on the new album and went on to say that the songs were recorded in October 2008. The album, according to these sources, had been planned for a fall release, but it had been suddenly pushed up to May, and finally April. The only reason these rumors were even halfway believed was that the individuals in question were trustworthy with proven track records. Otherwise, they would have been dismissed as more of the many hoaxes and wind-ups that occasionally pop up on in any fan community and later prove to be untrue.
Weeks went by without an official announcement and frustrations started to run high. People on the message boards were split into two camps: the believers and the nonbelievers. Then came the bombshell -- the March 17th issue of Rolling Stone had a short article mentioning song titles and further information. Details weren’t finalized, but this thing really was coming out in late April! The magazine confirmed the reports that Dylan had recorded a song (“Life Is Hard”) for an upcoming film, My Own Love Song. Rumors about him recording for that movie dated back to last fall, but nobody had really been paying much attention. Apparently, Dylan was inspired enough to record at least a whole album’s worth of songs.
Now, the fact that Columbia/Sony hadn’t announced this officially wasn’t completely unheard of. In a post-In Rainbows world, we now know that an album can be completed and out the door within a week of announcement. Still, the speculation persisted. Some pointed out that Rolling Stone had printed a joke article regarding a Dylan album before, even though that piece was obviously tongue-in-cheek and this one was not. Others mentioned the 1993 Supper Club shows that were ready to go and suddenly canceled. Even The New Yorker stated that the lack of a title meant that all of this new album talk was simply vapor. Columbia’s website linked to the Rolling Stone story, but it hadn’t announced the album, which led people to think that this was simply the work of some lackey in the IT department and not an official confirmation.
During the second week of March, rumors of an impending announcement came and went with each day. Obviously, for whatever reason, this thing was not going to happen…at least not in April. Then, out of the blue, came a report from UK’s Mojo magazine, from a writer who had heard parts of the album the previous day. His explanation for the lack of an announcement was that the title of the album, track listing, and cover had simply not been finalized. On Saturday, Amazon.com listed the title as Together Through Life. At 12:01 AM on Monday, Bob Dylan’s official site was updated with the album’s cover (a striking Bruce Davidson photograph), the first part of a typically bizarre Dylan interview, and a registration box where one can sign up for a first listen of music from the new album when available. We still don’t have an official track list, but the naysayers have certainly been quieted.
Here are the known song titles so far, and some of my favorite lines that have been quoted:
Possible song titles: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”, “Life Is Hard”, “My Wife’s Hometown”, “Forgetful Heart”, “Shake Shake Mama”, “I Feel a Change Coming On”, “It’s All Good”, “If You Ever Go to Houston” and “This Dream of You".
“I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver / I’m reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me / I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”
“The door is closed for evermore / If indeed there ever was a door.”
So that’s the long and short of it. Cryptic hints and odd rumors ramping up to a bizarre, rushed release. All of it atypical, to be sure, but when you think about it in the context of Dylan, maybe it isn’t so out of the ordinary after all. You get used to not being surprised by the surprises when you are dealing with Dylan. The best news is that in six weeks, we will be picking out references and allusions and poring over lyric sheets as the man tells us once again what all of this amounts to.