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.