Artist Update: Bob Dylan

Tuesday, Bob Dylan’s 46th studio album, Together Through Life, will be released.

Not surprisingly, it finds the pioneering singer-songwriter romping along the familiar byways he’s been traveling in recent years – using blues and roots music as the backdrop for vivid, all-consuming recollections of an elusive woman who isn’t around when she’s needed. Which is most of the time.

But it’s strikingly different from Dylan's 2006 missive Modern Times – it’s faster and looser, and more visceral. There’s less emphasis on carefully brained-out verses, and more focus on stuff that can’t be written down, the accidents that happen on the fly. Where Dylan once fashioned himself as the romantic poet turned songwriter who carefully examined the mysteries of love in thread-by-thread detail, now he’s writing shorthand, chasing a raw, bruising essence of sound – something closer to Howlin’ Wolf than William Blake. To borrow a phrase from the one-liner-extravaganza “My Wife’s Home Town,” this collection contains “stuff more potent than a gypsy curse.” (Thoughtful of Dylan to include a lyric that doubles as an entirely accurate pull-quote.)

Together is a rollicking marvel of roadhouse music, a jolt of electricity that has plenty to teach anyone who thinks the last consequential blues went down in 1979. The themes are fairly stock – these songs, which according to the credits have lyrics by Bob Dylan “with Robert Hunter,” amount to an unblinking and unsentimental look at love obsession and the emotional havoc it can wreak. The musical styles are stock, too – there’s a fairly traditional norteno ballad, a few anthemic rock processionals, some kicky erstatz zydeco, and Chicago blues guitar quotes that are integral to the compositions (so integral, in fact, that the city’s great blues bard Willie Dixon gets a co-write on one tune).

And yet the end result is anything but stock: Dylan and his supporting cast (which includes longtime Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo on accordion and guitar) seize upon the familiarity of the forms as a starting point, and then set out to customize them, one wicked chorus and weepy steel guitar at a time. There’s both a reverence for the traditions and a renegade spirit at work – this dream band might be thinking in terms of art, but remains planted in some bar with creaky floorboards, committed to entertaining dancers. Combined with Dylan’s wise-elder phrasing, the unaffected and ever-steady support takes these narratives – the disassociated mutterings of a man who’s haunted by a memory – beyond cliché, into a realm of the sublime. The blues has never sounded quite like this before.

About those lyrics. This is Dylan, so there are dizzying flashes of insight woven into each tune, and notions that defy the conventional “close read,” and lines so rich they deserve their own little shrines. Here are a few:

“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”

I’m moving after midnight down boulevards of broken cars

Don’t know what I’d do without it, this love that we call ours

Beyond here lies nothin’

Nothin’ but the moon and stars

We start in the desolate drifter landscape Dylan has painted before. It’s almost generic, except that he’s addressing some lover who in other songs seems to be completely missing from his life in the here and now. He’s talking directly to her, sharing his plans the way lovers do – “beyond here” could mean anything outside of this relationship.

“Life Is Hard”

From day to barren day, my heart stays locked away

My dreams are locked and barred, admitting life is hard without you near me.

This wistful ballad, outlined by sliding seventh chords on the mandolin, offers a more forthright take on seperation. Here, the vanished woman occupies almost a sacred space – she’s the animating force, the inspiration who keeps our battered but still heroic narrator keeping on. Sounding like a man who’s accustomed to loneliness but hasn’t yet abandoned hope, Dylan cuts right to the chase, with an admission that’s as plain as “Happy Birthday” on a greeting card.

“Forgetful Heart”

Forgetful heart, like a walking shadow in my brain

All night long, I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain

The door has closed forevermore

If indeed there ever was a door

By the second verse of this slightly altered blues anthem, you begin to wonder whether Dylan is working over the same memory of the same woman in each of these songs. This time, he doesn’t trust his recollections. He’s confessing the enduring nature of his love, and then in the next breath, in one of those great lines that plunge you into unexpectedly metaphysical waters, he doubts everything.

“I Feel A Change Comin’ On”

I’m listening to Billie Joe Shaver

And I’m reading James Joyce

Some people they tell me

I got the blood of the land in my voice

Here, on the second bridge of a lovely medium-tempo reflection that is the most hopeful expression of the set, Dylan offers the rare self-referential lyric. Is it an acknowledgement that his present-day voice is an acquired taste? Ravaged though it may be, the voice is key to the whole enterprise – it turns these cadences into field notes from some ongoing crusade. Others will no doubt sing these songs; it’s hard to imagine anyone else conveying all that Dylan puts in them.

“It’s All Good”

Big politicians telling lies

Rest stop kitchens all full of flies

Don’t make a bit of difference, don’t see why it should

But it’s all right cause it’s all good

This scooting, high-spirited vamp links elements of the blues and zydeco into something at once wry and giddy and delicious – a comment on the blithe “whateverness” that’s taken root in society, the willingness to tolerate (if not accept) mediocrity, that benumbed indifference to the slow but steady erosion of things.


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#1 from peter Tobia, philly - 04/27/2009 7:50

Best review I have read on the new Dylan CD.  People are protectors of a treasure like Dylan and this review is hands down better than Rolling Stone and the New York Times but together.  What’s interesting about the review are a look at some of the lyrics that appear on the CD and shedding a light on selected verses.  Moon’s understanding of music is apparent and his knowledge helps give a reference to the time period and musical styles that Dylan has chosen for the compositions.  But again it’s the lyrics, poetry, prose that are captivating and express emotions in yet another new way.  An example would be: “I got the blood of the land in my voice” from “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.”  I believe the singer and I haven’t heard the song yet.  I would buy the lyrics even if no music was provided.  Excellent review Tom!

#2 from ewr - 04/28/2009 6:19

46th Studio album????

#3 from tony heiderer, Boulder, colorado - 05/14/2009 1:06

This album sound as though Dylan is moving in the direction of where Tom Waits has gone with his music; it has become more of a theatrical act than a personal reflection on his experiences or a statement of belief. As a long time Dylan fan I wonder if he hasn’t run out of things to say in his own music even though the music itself has become more atmospheric. I did like the accompanying theme time radio hour.

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