BOB DYLAN Together Through Life (Sony/Columbia)
“You are as whorish as ever,” growls Bob Dylan in a backhanded compliment, before going to reference Jim Morrison: “Baby, you can start a fire.” Who else but Dylan can shape a line so sardonically earnest?
Dylan has made a strong case for being one of the most important and influential poetic voices of the 20th century, but rarely has his singing voice been given the same attention. A pity, because on Together Through Life, his 33rd studio album, Dylan sings with a compelling verve one hasn’t heard from him in over a decade, maybe two.
Granted, the years have taken their toll, and the octaves have gone off on his voice, but let’s face it. Bob Dylan has never been, and never will be a pretty singer. Even in his youth, Dylan strove to sound older than he really was, giving him a unique tone that would define his early work. Nearly four decades later, the circle is now complete; with the endless gravity only age can give present in every syllable of Dylan’s well worn voice.
The album kicks off with the devastated Tex Mex wheeze of Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, which sets the tone for the rest of the record with its accordion leads and the way Dylan transforms rather ordinary love song lyrics into an extraordinary lament. Life Is Hard, the spiritual sire of this record, is a slow but moving confession of remorse and defeat. Similarly, Forgetful Heart is a banjo-driven country tale of sorrow and weighed down memories. This is Dylan penning poetry of regret. The lyrics might have been co-written with poet and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, but the nuanced emotions that stoke the slow-burning flames of every song are more Zimerman than Hunter.
That’s not to say that Together Through Life is a confessional record in the vein of Blood On The Tracks. In its unabashed embrace of the Chicago blues and rusted desert songs of old, Life has more in common with 1969’s Nashville Skyline or 1989’s Oh Mercy. Nowhere is the 50s blues influence more prominent than on tracks like the lusty Jolene, with its driving Chicago John Lee Hooker shuffle that keeps the record trotting along.
Dylan returns to ballad mode with the decent This Dream Of You, but it is on the anthemic I Feel A Change Comin’ On that he really nails it. Over an upbeat blues pattern and superb guitar work by Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers, Dylan smoothly ties together personal and political imagery to paint a picture of modern-day America, torn between hope and despair. It’s a civil anthem one hasn’t heard from him since his days of aping Woody Guthrie, but now the epic detachedness has been replaced with a tender first person narrative that expresses everything from hope at Obama’s administration to the massive resentment and envy caused by the Recession. The record closes on the social observation of Its All Good, with Dylan spitting out a list of calamities drenched heavily in something straddling in between hopeful optimism and cynical sarcasm.
Of course, there are throwaway fillers here and there like My Wife’s Home Town and Shake Shake Mama, but part of Dylan’s rascal charm is his genuine ability to surprise. After the sprawling Modern Times, a record like this was probably far from everyone’s expectations. Dylan knows that. But he also knows that he is a man with the “blood of the land” in his voice, and that it’s a voice that will continue to capture audiences for years to come, lost octaves be damned.