BOB DYLAN: TOGETHER THROUGH LIFE (2009)
1) Beyond Here Lies Nothin'; 2) Life Is Hard; 3) My Wife's Home Town; 4) If You Ever Go To Houston; 5) Forgetful Heart; 6) Jolene; 7) This Dream Of You; 8) Shake Shake Mama; 9) I Feel A Change Comin' On; 10) It's All Good.
None of us should have anything against Los Lobos — they're a great band and all — but I am still not altogether sure whether it was such a good idea to use David Hidalgo as a key player on Dylan's third album of the new millennium, and relegate him to accordion at that. Together Through Life continues in the same general direction as its predecessors, but there is one major difference: this time around, it flat out refuses to rock. There's lots of blues, a little folk, some jugband dance stuff, but no rock. Polite old-timey muzak for dem old folks.
Naturally, the very fact itself that «Dylan refuses to rock» shouldn't be mentioned as an accusation. First, Dylan is Dylan, and he only rocks when he wants to. Second, Dylan is not a young boy no more, and an old boy can certainly be excused for wanting to sit on his porch and play a little rusty accordion instead of playing the Rolling Stones game. Third, the word «rock» itself sounds so passé circa 2009, no?
The problem is, this not-so-unexpected dropoff in energy cannot but focus our attention on the obvious: way too often, these new projects of Dylan's end up sounding like unimaginative tributes to the past, rather than an inventive singer-songwriter's upgrading of the past. As long as he kept a certain sharpness to the sound, this was forgivable — ʽTweedle Dee & Tweedle Dumʼ was so snappy and sneery that it remained a fun listen from first to last second. But now, with this transition to a more laid-back, relaxed, even «friendly» sound, Together Through Life runs a much higher risk of boring the average listener — and annoying the listener who is able to pick out all of its stolen parts.
Because this time around, the stealing issue really gets irritating. At least ʽRollin' And Tumblin'ʼ and ʽThe Levee's Gonna Breakʼ started out like covers, then veered off into a different lyrical world under the banner of «this belongs to no one man /or woman/, we all add and subtract what we like as the inexhaustible human spirit flows». But a song like ʽBeyond Here Lies Nothinʼ — well, all it does is simply appropriate the melody of Otis Rush's ʽAll Your Love (I Miss Loving)ʼ (a song that many of us know through the famous Clapton / Mayall cover on the Bluesbreakers' 1966 album), without a single hint that there might be an actual source. For what it's worth, though, the Otis Rush song was one of the most desperate soul-blues explosions of its time — the Dylan song is quite routine in comparison.
ʽIf You Ever Go To Houstonʼ is a transparent «deconstruction» of ʽThe Midnight Specialʼ, extracting one of its lines, attaching it to a pervasive two-note accordion riff and dragging the results through a lazy six minute rant, inspired by the lovely state of Texas. It's nice, in a way, yet I cannot get rid of the feeling that I am really listening here to the protagonist of ʽJust Like Tom Thumb's Bluesʼ, forty years older, flabbier, smellier, and, worst of all, not made particularly wiser by all the passing years. Just a little less attractive to the ladies, that's all.
Cutting it short, I am not in awe of this vibe. The lack of «darkness» does not bother me, because if Dylan does not feel the need to convey darkness, this probably means he is relatively happy, and a relatively happy Dylan can be a wonderful thing (remember New Morning?). In fact, the happiest song on the album, ʽI Feel A Change Comin' Onʼ, is easily my favorite on the album: it is one of the few that does not sound like a straightforward rip-off and has a personal, inspired ring to it. But what does bother me is that the music is so somnambulant — as if that goddamn accordion got everybody off the track. ʽMy Wife's Home Townʼ sounds like Muddy Waters on tranquilizers, for Christ's sake!
As Bob himself slyly remarks on the last track, "whatever's going down, it's all good". If you relax, put a smile on your face, and put your signature under that philosophy, Together Through Life with Bob Dylan at your side is simply going to be one more healthy, fun-filled joyride through the pleasures of old-timey music in a post-post-modern world. (A sparingly short ride, too, since the songs are cut down to reasonable length and the entire record runs for the good old 45 minutes). You might even be wooed over and swept off your feet by some of them charming old-fashioned ballads like ʽLife Is Hardʼ (not too hard, by the sound of it) or ʽThis Dream Of Youʼ. For some other people I know, Together Through Life was an unpleasant jolt, even leading them to re-evaluate their feelings towards the other two albums — on a sort of «looks like there ain't that much depth to this style, after all» platform.
I wouldn't go that far, of course, but I do agree that, third time around, the same formula does not work that well, and it isn't even the fault of the accordion — the accordion is just a side effect, as is the ever-increasing gurgle ratio of the voice. The real problem might be that, at this advanced age, Dylan has largely lost his gift for «genius spontaneity», and needs to spend more time working on his songs, and his sound, than he used to.
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