Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Bob Dylan - Together Through Life

Bob Dylan now occupies a place in American arts that is rare indeed. He can be compared to Gershwin, Cole Porter, Yip Harburg, Hank Williams or even his hero Woody Guthrie. He has broken the chains of the mundane and entered the atmosphere of the great. This is based on the entirety of his career. The fact that the last decade of his work has been so consistently fascinating has just magnified this truth. During some periods in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s it seemed as though he might give lie to his perceived greatness. Careless albums and shoddy live shows made it look as though he might be another soul to not make it out of the 60’s intact. With hindsight, I find that even the “lost periods” hold some part of the puzzle. The Christian albums now sound well-crafted, Self-Portrait now sounds like “Americana” before such a term existed. Individual songs on originally derided albums like Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, or Down In The Groove stand up to scrutiny with material from his best albums, although there is no doubt that Dylan has indeed seen periods of lesser artistic valor than the period we are currently living through.
Together Through Life fits comfortably in the footsteps of Modern Times. Musically it might be his clearest production to date under the identity of Jack Frost. There is an airy sense of space between the instruments, with Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell showing taste and restraint on every track and David Hidalgo offering simple but elegant accordion lines. Dylan himself plays some evocative keyboards, especially on upbeat numbers like “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama.” His voice is strong by Dylan standards. It is expressive and singular as it always has been.
Stylistically it is an accurate reflection of the music Dylan loves; early rock, folk, jazz, pop, tex-mex…he makes music for record store employees. It is the taste of a man who has had the drive and luck to spend his life in art. He clearly is informed about and enamored with what we now call “roots music”(one listen to his endlessly entertaining Theme Time Radio Hour will confirm this). The songs he crafts are amalgams of all these genres, not paying tribute, but inhabiting them with authority and a seamless ability to mix them and make sense. It is the sound coming from the windows of a neighborhood of houses in mid 20th century America. This one Polish, that one Dominican, this one happy, that one miserable, gospel/heathen, janitor/millionaire. It all blends together in the listener’s ear to collectively form the soundtrack of his day. I find it to be completely comforting.
All the songs but one on Together Through Life were co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The overall effect is to ground Dylan at some level. Like Dylan, Hunter has dwelt in both earthly and celestial realms lyrically. They both seem to favor a more grounded approach these days, and Hunter brings a common-man sensibility to balance Dylan’s sometimes floral eloquence. They still sound like modern Dylan songs; tales of heartbreak, revenge and tender love against an all-American Cinemascope background populated by cowboys, priests, star-crossed lovers and crooked politicians, they are a little more John Ford than John Huston with Robert Hunter on board. As always with Dylan there is the occasional wag of the finger and the always-present wink of the eye. If you don’t get a kick out of the farcical album closer “It’s All Good” you may have a hard time with Bob’s sense of humor in general. Again, I find his brand of old timey wisdom to be comforting in times of strife. And that is one of the great strengths of this album. Bob does seem to dwell in a place just over the horizon looking back, but he is quite aware of what it is to be a man of the present. He lives in this world just like the rest of us. He may or may not be referring to crooked politicians of the present day, but he knows they are on our minds. As with all his recent music, it is highly relevant to the present because it has not forgotten the lessons of the past.
Bob Dylan’s latter-day career is as miraculous as his early career. I remember thinking while listening to “Visions Of Johanna” or “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” “this guy can’t be of this earth. No human could write this.” Now, I find myself thinking “this guy must be of this earth. This is very human.” In a very real way Dylan reflects the emotional growth, and day-to-day experiences of so many of his listeners. It must be a burden. But I certainly appreciate the effort.

No comments: