Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (2009)



Seems like there've been a lot of first-person reviews here lately, but I have a Serious Assignment that requires strict avoidance of such things and this is my coffee break, so here we go. I didn't really comprehend Dylan until I had been dumped a couple of times; something about that voice suddenly grows a weary familiarity with the advent of actual adult heartbreak. Like so many others who've become followers in recent years, I found myself quite unexpectedly seduced by his trilogy of "comeback" albums starting with Time Out of Mind; not only were they discography highlights, they felt like the beginning of an entirely new career. Seemingly out of nowhere, Dylan rode into town and slapped off that record, Love and Theft, and Modern Times with arresting ease over an impressive eight-year span.

This unexpected followup, announced quite suddenly just before its entrance into the shops, coincided neatly with my discovery. Going back through internet archives, I'm wagering you won't read a lot of reviews of Together Through Life by folks for whom it was the first new Bob album since they became fans. (That sentence is a grammatical horror, I'm sorry. See, I'm getting all the shitty non-editing out of my system here.) But I'm such a guy -- after trying for years, I fell hard for Blood on the Tracks, Nashville Skyline, and Freewheelin' in the late weeks of 2008. Life showed up mere months later, after I'd absorbed plenty more. Rather distracted at the time, I gave it a tiny bit of attention, maybe a listen or two, and sort of filed it away. Didn't really think about it again until today, when some light bulb went off and I said "Hey, Bob Dylan had that new album last year and I never really gave it much of a chance. What was the deal with that?" All I could recall was that it was hardly as sensuous as its cover suggested -- if anything, less risky and brash than anything he'd done in a while.

The deal is this: Upon entering the haphazard and muddy netherworld of Life, for almost all of the first half I end up wondering how I overlooked the managed intensity and grumbling atmosphere that now seems like perverse perfection. It's environment, partially: there's the stark Boxing Day mood, there's the million things I really need to be doing rather than listening to this, and there's (for future context) a winter storm raging across much of the U.S. (and Europe) tonight. The dimly lit, caustic mumbling courtesy Dylan and deceptively settled blues-rock noise courtesy his road company backing band falls over like dirty snow, lazy but oddly exhilarating. "Life Is Hard" and "If You Ever Go to Houston" brilliantly reconfigure ancient rock & roll as a graying grunt that both admonishes and comforts. As on much of his recent work, Dylan embraces his age, and it strengthens his work.

Around track five, though, I start to remember why I forgot the whole thing. Apprehension about the bluesy noodlings from there to the end is acceptable but perhaps a bit misplaced; they don't hit hard like the first few but they certainly expand and focus the atmosphere a bit, especially the frisky "Shake Shake Mama." The schmaltz moves, on the other hand, are intolerable. "Jolene" is rough going, "It's All Good" is tired and smug in the worst way, but the crime is "This Dream of You," a deadweight ballad that cries out for the Billy Joel cover version. It's just as murky and distant as everything else, but that somehow underscores its weird dishonesty.

The second half's strongest number is "I Feel a Change Comin' On," on which Dylan addresses what once felt like a universal mood, while building in (if only subtly) a healthy cynicism that lets him have it both ways. And he can do that because he's Bob Dylan. He can also release half-assed records if he wants, because he's Bob Dylan. But if you disregarded Together Through Life the first time, it does warrant a second look; at least six of the ten songs deserve some attention. And if you're in the mood for some accordion-overloaded mood music, by golly, is this your lucky day.

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