Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Mild Case of the Blues

Bob Dylan - Together Through Life (Columbia, 2009)

Unusually, I find myself almost agreeing with Petridish in The Guardian. His observation last week that the hype surrounding every new Bob Dylan release makes them impossible to judge seemed entirely reasonable. A handful of the reviews of ‘Together Through Life’ I’ve read so far have been quite measured, but many have been very generous. Allan Jones’ review in Uncut magazine, yet again proffering the five star treatment, seems absurdly uncritical. How do we judge an album arriving in the twilight years of a singular, remarkable career that has lasted over forty years?

If we’re unfair enough to insist that a new Dylan work is judged within the context of his complete output, then ‘Together Through Life’ can only be seen as his least ambitious and least interesting work since ‘Under The Red Sky’. The collections of acoustic reinterpretations ‘Good As I Been To You’ and ‘World Gone Wrong’ both had more to offer and can now be seen as transitional albums, directing Dylan back to his core concerns within the American folk tradition. These concerns reappeared on ‘Time Out of Mind’ and dominated ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Modern Times’. There’s nothing on ‘Together Through Life’ as powerful as ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’, ‘Not Dark Yet’, ‘Mississippi’ or ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’ and certainly nothing as sustained as ‘Highlands’ or as funny as many of the blues numbers on ‘Love and Theft’.

The PR story surrounding this album suggested that it took even Columbia records by surprise, with Dylan continuing to write and record after being commissioned to produce a song for Olivier Dahan’s new film. The reality seems a little less clear, with the late emergence of the news that all but one of the lyrics were co-written with former Grateful Dead poet Robert Hunter. This set alarm bells ringing in the minds of even the most slavish Dylan devotees. Dylan and Hunter collaborated once before, at the absolute nadir of Dylan’s career on ‘Down In The Groove’. The two songs that resulted were far from inspired. ‘Silvio’ might have been one of the best tracks on that album, but that simply wasn’t good enough from an artist of Dylan’s proven calibre. The less said about ‘Ugliest Girl in the World’ the better. Not even irony or childish humour could defend it.

There’s nothing here quite that bad mercifully, but the lyrics are notably simpler, sometimes more banal. I’m not one of those people that unreasonably expects Dylan to always write in florid surrealist allusions. Sometimes his best lyrics have been his most direct. However, even those direct, personal lyrics have been sustained and bold (I’m thinking particularly of ‘Up To Me’, a song rarely recognised as one of his very best). For all the literary criticism and analysis of his borrowings, Dylan’s ultimate achievement has been the complete integration of words and music within the form of longer, ambitious pop songs. He has also played the most significant role in the development of expressive vocal phrasing in the post-war era. But ‘Together Through Life’ seems like one of those occasional Dylan albums where he’s desperate to escape that burdensome legacy. These more straightforward words, whilst occasionally intriguing, offer too little for Dylan to sink his teeth into in terms of his delivery. Where he usually sounds ferocious or brutal, he frequently sounds lazy or non-committal here, on songs that at least pretend to be about love.

This works well on two songs. ‘Life is Hard’ is a delicate croon in the model of ‘Spirit on the Water’ or ‘Beyond The Horizon’, better than the latter but nowhere near as striking as the former. It is languid, laconic and hazy in a manner we’re still not entirely used to from Dylan. Where ‘Bye and Bye’ was light and breezy, this is exaggerated and mannered. It contrasts starkly with his tendency to rush and force his phrasing in live performance. On ‘This Dream Of You’ he sounds so hushed he’s almost in the background, and the song’s border feel lends it a hypnotic quality appropriate for its theme. This is territory that Dylan has visited before (‘Dreamin’ Of You’, an outtake from ‘Time Out Of Mind’ that surfaced last year on ‘Tell Tale Signs’) but this is a worthwhile addition to such world-weary concerns. Its melancholy tone and modified Latin rhythm remind me of Roy Orbison, although he would have course have delivered it with that incomparable combination of grandeur and quivering vulnerability.

The album is liberally peppered with the accordion of David Hidalgo, which seems to occupy the role Dylan’s unconventional keyboard playing assumes in concert – responding and serving as a counterpoint to his vocal delivery. It’s a neat idea, but I’m not quite convinced that the band have got enough mileage from it. As with most of Dylan’s output, there’s little to no dynamic or textural variation on these songs. This is unproblematic whenever Dylan’s delivery is urgent and when he has plenty to say but the generic blues tracks here are often uncharacteristically lacking in bite. For my money, Allan Jones’ comparison of this supposedly ‘rambunctious’ record with The Basement Tapes is massively wide of the mark. Even ‘My Wife’s Home Town’ and ‘Jolene’, on which Dylan’s growl is more savage and commanding, seem a little tame and polite musically. Drummer George Recile, one of the more exciting musicians in Dylan’s touring band, is kept on something of a tight leash here, where a greater contribution would have created more tension and drama. When the music here is at its most atmospheric, such as on ‘Forgetful Heart’, it’s inevitably accompanied by an inconsequential lyric.

There are songs here I really want to like more than I do. ‘Shake Shake Mama’ is a lightweight but endearing blues shuffle groove, but definitely the lesser cousin of something like ‘Summer Days’ or ‘Someday Baby’. It’s enjoyable chiefly for its sly humour. Many will latch on to the closer ‘It’s All Good’ with its litany of intensifying problems, all shrugged off with the title’s recurring platitude (‘buildings are crumbling in the neighbourhood but there’s nothing to worry about, ‘cos it’s all good!’). Dylan allows himself a little laugh mid-way through the song which encapsulates its mischievous spirit. I’m not sure it actually does all that much to expand his lexicon though, and there is an increasing problem with his reliance on non-sequiturs – ‘big politicians tellin’ lies/Restaurant kitchen all full of flies’ is, I’m afraid, not a good couplet at all. Like much of the music on this album, it makes me tap my foot reservedly, but doesn’t quite make me feel like dancing.

Dylan comes closest to capturing the border magic he’s clearly striving for on ‘If You Ever Go To Houston’, but it’s again slightly too measured and controlled. It has one of the album’s best lyrics, revitalising some of the caricatures and stereotypes of American narrative songwriting. Here, there are bar-rooms and gun-belts galore. It somehow feels both historic and ageless all at the same time. I suspect this and the entertaining ‘Jolene’ will be the growers of this set.

He almost escapes the shackles of the blues form on the portentously titled ‘I Feel A Change Comin’ On’, instead revisiting the dusty, soulful feel of ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’ or ‘Workingman’s Blues’. I’m not too concerned abut some of the lyrics seem rather self-consciously imposing. It’s likely that this line: ‘I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me, I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice’ will be the most often quoted from this album. But do those influences lead directly to the gravitas of what follows? I’m actually more taken with the bizarre opening couplet (‘I’ve been walking the world over, looking far off to the east/Well I see my baby comin’, she’s-a-walking with the village Priest’). Dylan risks descending into cliché with such ‘rambling man’ language, but his lifestyle as a constantly touring performer imbues it with real world poignancy. His band’s playing is at its most relaxed and musical on this song, and it’s comfortably the most amiable song here, lingering favourably in the mind.

I have no real objection to Dylan, contrary to the film’s title, actually looking back and reviving older pre-rock n’roll musical styles. At the age of 68, it’s probably unreasonable to expect anything as revolutionary as ‘that wild mercury sound’ again. As I’ve remarked before, the blues context particularly suits his ravaged voice and therefore seems as much driven by practical as by artistic concerns. He genuinely sounds like a voice of experience now, which is why it seems slightly disappointing that much of ‘Together Through Life’ sees him lost in a romantic reverie rather than offering much in the way of real psychological insight. Conservative though they were in the main, ‘Love and Theft’ and ‘Modern Times’ both worked because of the sheer exuberance and zest of Dylan’s wordplay and wit. These are only fleetingly in evidence on ‘Together Through Life’.

As an enjoyable listen, ‘Together Through Life’ is by no means disastrous. But we are doing both Dylan and his devoted followers a disservice if we try and claim that it is ‘yet another masterpiece’. It’s one of his more feathery and vague records. It’s not without charm but there are certainly times when it feels like it should be a little more muscular. It’s also hard to approach it without remembering that Dylan said much more about relationships on ‘Blood on the Tracks’ and ‘Desire’. For those simply happy to hear more from a man who is clearly incapable of stopping, it will be good enough. For his harshest critics or some of his more demanding devotees, it will come as something of a letdown.

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