Together Through Life
published: 8 /
Comfortable-sounding, but lyrically unimaginative and ultimately forgettable latest album from Bob Dylan
Dylan’s certainly been keeping himself busy over the last few years: An autobiography, an album (2006’s 'Modern Times'), a radio show, hundreds of live performances, movie soundtracks, a film biopic, countless interviews and now a second album in 3 years, the quietly released 'Together Through Life'.
Dylan is now on magazine covers, on the BBC, on the radio, subject of Scorsese documentaries, and Hollywood films, part of the musical furniture, and he has undoubtedly captured a new generation of fans, whilst catching up with a few that abandoned him many years ago. Fans who love the iconic Dylan of the stories that helped stitch the tapestry of music history. Who love tales of a 1966 Dylan who responded to a heckle of "Judas!" from the crowd at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, by drooling, "I don’t believe you!’ turning as he said so to his band and compelling them to "play it ------- loud" before bursting into a vitriolic rendition of perhaps his greatest ever song, 'Like a Rolling Stone'. Love a Dylan who courted controversy, who was reviled as a sell-out as he abandoned his folk-acoustic roots at the Newport Folk Festival, a Dylan who was a poster-boy for the civil rights movement and heralded as the voice of a disillusioned generation which desperately sought solace and understanding in a turbulent America of civil disorder in a world hung low with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and a society dealing with the very real consequences of Communism, Fascism and war.
Dylan’s songs of that time carry the power, urgency and morality of that moment, and growing to love 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Caroll' or 'The Times They Are A-Changin’ is as much about empathising with the mood and the history of the times as it is about the inherent value of the music. Later works, such as the unparallel 'Blonde on Blonde' (the name itself a stroke of genius*) developed his drug-fuelled song writing to encompass passionate social commentary, chaotic apocalyptic visions and the biting damage of love turned sour. So much can be gleamed from any one song on this album that it is little wonder that Dylan’s reputation has been restored in recent years to lofty heights, these songs are amongst the best ever written by any artist.
It is quite a reputation to live up to, but on his previous three studio albums he has managed to do just that, and songs such as 'Not Dark Yet', 'Mississippi' and 'Nettie Moore', show that Dylan is a artist still capable of work that merits its place in his canon.
Musically Dylan has shifted from rock n’ roll resolutely towards bluesy, almost country folk, with influences of swing time and jazz. There is an undoubted timeless quality to the sound, it seems both rich in the history of American music but suitably distinct to be interesting. The direction seemed clear on the previous release, 'Modern Times' but it is made concrete on 'Together Through Life'. Songs like 'If You Ever Go to Houston' epitomise this style. It is both relaxed and enjoyable, with a simple repeating accordion underpinning the lyrics which melt quietly away into the sound.
The best song on the album is the murky 'Forgetful Heart', which could have slid neatly onto the equally swampy 'Oh Mercy' album. Its simple melody is accompanied by some wonderfully understated guitar work by Mike Campbell, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who adds the song's depth. The album - produced by Dylan himself under his Jack Frost pseudonym - has a quiet, gloomy feel. It is not depressing, nor resplendent, but rather finds a lazy mid-way feel, almost as if it was too hot, or the artist too old, to get into too much of a bother about anything.
To some quarters this comfortable bluesy feel will sit beautifully, its certainly the sort of thing that will grow on you with every listen, but it can also seem somewhat formulaic, especially as lyrically the album is a disappointment.
'This Dream of You' for example:
"I don't wanna believe
but I keep believing it
Shadows dance upon the wall
Shadows that seem to know it all
Am I too blind to see, is my heart playing tricks on me
I’m lost in the crowd all my tears are gone
All I have and all I know is this dream of you which keeps me living on."
This lyric isn’t awful - but its hardly inspiring, and its hardly Dylan at his free flowing best.
If we compare this to the first verse of the 1966 'Visions of Johanna':
"Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handful of rain, temptin' you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind."
The broad meaning of 'Visions 'is the thoughts of a man, presumably Dylan, sleeping with someone (Louise) whilst thinking about the girl he really wants but can’t have (Johanna). In this first verse alone (and, by the way, the song just gets better and better) we already have a contrast between the hard sounding ’Louise’ lines, ending in quiet, deny it, and defy it… and the soft, beautiful sounds associated with Johanna, loft, cough, soft, turn off… We also have the image of Louise "holding a handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it" the idea that while what she offers is momentarily appealing, like a hand full of rain it is ultimately only transitory and unfulfilling, as it will surely not last long. The lyrics make widespread use of alliteration, tricks…tryin’, defy…flicker, lights…loft, and of course Dylan’s trade mark rhyme, but even if we ignore, or don’t notice these things, as an audio experience we hear them, and the sentiment - the vision of Johanna that conquers his mind, is made all the more powerful.
If we look back to 'The Dream of You' lyrics, we can see none of this construction, and consequently the lyrics hold far less power. The lyrics throughout the album lack precision, narrative or imagery, they seem secondary, as though little effort has been directed at them, whereas Dylan at his best awards the lyrics at least equal billing to the music in his songs. Compare these two lyrics, the first from 'Shake Shake Mama' from 'Together Through Life' and the second from the much earlier 'Lay, Lady, Lay' and you’re sure to see what I mean:
"I get the blues for you baby when I look up at the sun
come back here and we can have some real fun.’
‘Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed."
'Together Through Life' is a good album, and every Dylan fan will rightly rush out, buy it and listen to little else for the next few weeks (that is unless, like me, they’ve recently developed a mild addiction to Nitin Satwhney) but is it an iconic album ? Absolutely not. I suspect that the legions of recent Dylan converts who’ll buy 'Together Through Life' (and it seems there are quite a few, as I read this morning that its gone to no.1 in the album charts) will largely be disappointed. After a diet of 60’s protest songs, 'Like a Rolling Stone' rock n’ roll and 'Blood on the Tracks' romantic genius most people who buy this will wonder what all the fuss is about. Dylan’s current music just isn’t accessible enough to justify his current popularity. His back catalogue certainly is, but the modern Dylan, is a very different animal, and whilst his rightful place in rock history is assured, the recent Dylan converts (and the 5/5 reviews for 'Together Through Life') that have abounded recently will likely find little long term interest in his output as he approaches his 69th year.
* In case you didn’t guess, a play on ‘black on black’ crime, an ambiguity of meaning you’re left only to wonder…
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Life Is Hard
My Wife's Home Town
If You Ever Go To Houston
This Dream Of You
Shake Shake Mama
I Feel A Change Comin' On
It's All Good