By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Dylan’s first-rate second-rate album

I’ve listened to Bob Dylan’s latest CD, “Together Through Life,” a number of times now, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. The assessment that rings truest to me is this: at the age of 67, Dylan has, for the first time in his long career, succeeded in making a terrific second-rate album.

What I mean is that nearly every album Dylan’s ever made has been a masterpiece or close to it; an attempted masterpiece that falls short in some important way; or an utter embarrassment. The stakes are always high, and usually too high. On “Together Through Life,” by contrast, it sounds like he went into the studio to have fun and managed to convey that sense of fun to us listeners. Not that it’s going to be everyone’s idea of a good time — some of the lyrics are pretty dark. What matters is that nothing here is weighed down by any deep sense of portentous meaningfulness.

Dylan accomplished that mainly by collaborating with Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter on all but one song. There’s nothing like offloading the lyrical load to remove the weight of critics’ poring over Dylan’s words to try to figure out what he’s trying to say. (Not to mention tracking down his sources for evidence of what might be called over-enthusiastic borrowing.)

Everyone’s been obsessing over the Bruce Davidson cover shot. I’ve chosen instead to include the back cover, by Josef Koudelka, because it looks exactly like “Together Through Life” sounds — like a rough Tex-Mex band whose lead instrument, incongruously enough, is an accordian. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an old-fashioned blues with an accordian as prominent as it is on “My Wife’s Home Town,” a creepy, ancient-sounding song that — despite the Willie Dixon credit — could be a lost Howlin’ Wolf track.

Straight-ahead, uptempo songs like “If You Ever Go to Houston,” “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama” give Dylan some good new live material. The slow ones? Well, let’s just say there’s no “Nettie Moore” or “Red River Shore” here. The slow songs, especially the Hunter-less “This Dream of You,” mainly serve as mood music.

And can we please stop obsessing over Dylan’s voice? Yes, it’s shot, and it has been for quite some time. But vocal qualities aside, the man is one of the great singers in the history of rock and roll, with unmatched phrasing and urgency. His singing is one of the main pleasures of listening to his new album.

I don’t know how much I’ll be listening to “Together Through Life” six months from now. The album doesn’t rank with his comeback trilogy of the past decade (“Time Out of Mind,” “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times”), but it’s not intended to.

It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. I’d give it three and a half stars out of five.

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6 Comments

  1. cody

    Nice take, Dan. I agree that the “looseness” of the album is very appealling.For me the standouts are “I Feel a change coming on”, “If you ever go to houston”, “life is hard” and “this dream of you.”I think his vocal performance is excellent thoughout. Sure, his voice is shot but his phrasing is wonderful.For an unexpected release, it’s a treat. Let’s see how well it ages.

  2. Bill Lindsay

    Astute take, Dan. To me it’s somewhat sonically reminiscent of the last two, but with more shuffle feel and (obviously) more Latino flavor, thanks to David Hidalgo’s accordian. One commentator likened the overall impact of the prominent accordian on the proceedings to the effect of Scarlet Rivera’s violin on “Desire” – which I think is quite apt. (Interesting aside: Desire also featured a prominent co-lyricist.)I am glad that Bob didn’t use his latest touring band in this recording, his live shows simply have not been as good since the departure of Larry Campbell et al a few years back. Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and Mike Campbell (Tom Petty) ably handle the guitars on this recording. There are some good lyrics scattered throughout (I’ve come to expect some degree of dark, apocalyptic visions with Bob). You make a good point about Dylan’s dodging the expectations issue by having Hunter helping out with the words.One minor point of clarification (or perhaps expansion): The tune credited to Willie Dixon (My Wife’s Home Town) is I Just Want to Make Love to You, which Dixon wrote for Muddy Waters. Dylan simply changes the lyrics.My favorite tracks are Forgetful Heart, I Feel a Change Comin’ On, and It’s All Good. I give it a B overall, entertaining but not essential.

  3. Left Bank Scribe

    Further clarification/expansion: Dixon wrote most of the songs that made the Wolf famous, including “Spoonful”, “Evil”, I Ain’t Superstitious”, “Back Door Man”, and “Little Red Rooster.”As to Dylan’s voice being “shot”, I think a more accurate term would be “weathered” – lending it an authenticity, at least on the blues, he never had in his 20s. Indeed, I’d love to hear him redo “It Takes a Lot To Laugh..” or “From A Buick 6”. They’d probably sound better now than the originals.

  4. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: “I Just Want to Make Love to You” … oh, hell yes. That’s exactly what it is. Hadn’t dawned on me.

  5. b.f.

    Dylanologist A.J. Weberman apparently also posted a review of this album that might interest Dylan fans–as a comment, a few weeks ago, on the Street website at the following link:http://www.signonsandiego.com/entertainment/street/2009/05/not_that_together_bob_dylan_un.html Dylanologist Weberman’s own Dylanology website is at the following link:http://www.dylanology.org/ One thing that was puzzling about the PBS documentary of Dylan that was aired a few years ago was that it didn’t seem to contain much footage of interviews with former Sing Out! magazine editor Irwin Silber or with Dylanologist Weberman; and it didn’t seem to include much footage of Phil Ochs (who also wrote protest folk songs in the early 1960s).

  6. Peter

    Love how he sings “Everybody got all the flowers/I don’t have one single rose.” Not a bad lyric, either.

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