Blesok no. 65, March-April, 2009
It's all good on Bob Dylan's “Together through Life”
Even this late, one month shy of his 68th birthday, another side of Bob Dylan reveals itself.
After securing iconic status in the '60s, the most revered songwriter of the modern age has spent decades subverting his image, confounding expectations and redefining himself.
He does all three to delightful effect on Together Through Life (4* out of four), a raffish riff on romance. Dylan's 33rd solo album, out Tuesday, lives up to the artistic standards established by a trilogy of career-recharging gems that started with 1997's Time Out of Mind. But he deviates from their apocalyptic burdens to spin yarns, wry and real, of ordinary folks in the grip of lust, longing and heartache.
The album sprang from a single jazz-tinged ballad, Life Is Hard, composed for French director Olivier Dahan, who made the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose and asked Dylan to contribute material for the upcoming My Own Love Song.
Inspired, Dylan lingered in the studio with his band and accordion player David Hidalgo of Los Lobos to follow his impetuous muse.
Producing himself under the usual pseudonym Jack Frost, Dylan has captured the vibrant, visceral, ramshackle sound of music made on the fly. The raw emotions and ragged spontaneity of Together, which is rooted in traditions that Dylan cherishes yet keenly surveys a contemporary landscape, set this work apart from 2001's “Love and Theft” and 2006's Modern Times.
While Together is anchored in Chess-era blues, with Dylan freely channeling Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Otis Rush, it's not monochromatic. Echoes of a Tex-Mex roadhouse, a Louisiana bayou and a Parisian café creep into the mix.
Of course, nothing separates Dylan from the pack like his craggy vocals and literate lyrics. Long ago celebrated for his surreal winding narratives, he now deals in straight talk, his searing irony and sly humor delivered with greater economy. Shake Shake Mama and It's All Good crackle with twisted humor. He still has the power to spook (“The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door”).
And some couplets are simply Dylanesque: “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.”
He's got grit, for sure. His gloriously wicked, wheezy croon suits these biting, sentimental tales of love in hard times. Dylan may be tangled up in blues, but when he punctuates My Wife's Home Town with a mischievous chuckle, it's clear he has never felt so unfettered.