My recent post about the new video for Bob Dylan’s ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ reminded me that I’ve been putting off my review of the album on which that song appears, Together Through Life.
It’s hard to believe that, at 68 years old, Bob Dylan is in the middle of a streak that rivals his output in the mid 1960s. From 1965-67, he released Bringing it All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding. That streak would be a career for most artists.
It took him a little longer this time, but from 1997 through this year, he has released Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times and now Together Through Life — another streak that other artists must envy.
Those groups of albums match up nicely, because Together Through Life is indeed the John Wesley Harding of this latest batch. It’s a low-key, minor affair… not a grand statement. This album doesn’t contain any new Dylan masterpieces, along the lines of ‘Ain’t Talkin” or ‘Nettie Moore’ on Modern Times. It’s a soft stroll featuring songs that work as much because of their sound as their lyrics and structure.
The signature sound of Together Through Life is provided by Dave Hidalgo’s accordion. Hidalgo, a member of Los Lobos, infuses almost every song with a Tex-Mex feel. It’s easy to imagine listening to this album while relaxing in a border town bar with your boot-clad feet on a table and a bottle of tequila in your hand. This is lived-in music for hard men and women who aren’t afraid to occasionally show their sentimental side.
The thing that most impresses me about latter-day Dylan is how he has turned his biggest liability — that ever-weakening voice — into a great strength. Armed with just a croak and a growl, he has reached back into the songbooks of the 19th century and written music that benefits from the voice of experience. You wouldn’t want to hear Justin Timberlake, or even Bono, sing Dylan’s new songs. They need to be sung by somebody who sounds like he just crawled out of the desert after a week without water. They need to be sung by Bob Dylan.
“I got the blood of the land in my voice,” he sings on ‘I Feel a Change Coming On’ — one of the album’s best tracks — and that about sums it up.
Now I’ll contradict myself a little bit and point out that this album pulls back a bit from that ‘blood of the land’ sound. There’s more swing here, and more gentleness, than on his previous three albums. But the songs — most of them about heartbreak of one sort or another — still benefit from that voice of experience.
Take the hard-luck love song ‘Forgetful Heart,’ in which Dylan confesses that “without you it’s so hard to live” to his lost lover (Lost to death? Alzheimers? A simple breakup? It’s not clear.)
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed for evermore
If indeed there ever was a door
Another song about a lost love, ‘This Dream of You,’ is equally poignant:
In a curtain gloom, I saw a star from Heaven fall
I turned and looked again but it was gone
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you which keeps me living on
And one more, to drive the point home, from ‘Life is Hard’:
I haven’t felt that much
From day to barren day
My heart stays locked away
I walk the boulevard,
Admitting life is hard
Without you near me
Either old Bobby has had a rough patch in his love life or he’s decided to write an album for those of us who have. Listening to this album after seeing Up, it feels very much like the soundtrack of a man like that film’s Carl, who has lost his soul mate after a lifetime together (indeed, the album’s title splendidly supports that reading). It’s funny how many echoes of Up I’m seeing and hearing since I watched that wonderful film!
Despite that subject matter, Together Through Life is not a depressing or difficult listen… not at all. The loose sound and several upbeat, humorous tracks make the album go down easy. And honestly, I can think of few things more uplifting in popular music than the continued artistic excitement of a grizzled old song and dance man like Bob Dylan.
This Dream of You:
I Feel a Change Coming On: