Listening to a new Bob Dylan album almost always conjures doubt and conflicted feelings, echoes of past greatness, evidence of current greatness, and obvious signs of disintegration, at least it's been that way for me since 2001's Love & Theft, which ended up being a pretty decent album all things considered. Dylan's latest offering Together Through Life was released "by surprise" in April 2009, and offers a similar experience to the one I just described.
In fact, I'm giving the record its fourth listen as I write this, and I still don't know what to make of it. If you take Together Through Life at its face, you'd find it a breezy, playful venture through blues, Tex-Mex, and New Orleans styles, never getting too serious with the lyrics and throwing in a few instruments one might not equate with Dylan's music. A light accordion laces much of the album together with lazy melodies and is accompanied by a stray banjo or violin here or there, which is befitting, I suppose, of Dylan's elder rhinestone cowboy persona. If he hasn't always bucked convention, he's at least bucked expectations.
And as an album, Together Through Life works if you don't take it too seriously. Robert Hunter, lyricist for the Grateful Dead, cooperated with Dylan on the words for this one, but it's difficult to feel anything different from other recent records. The lyrics are a mix of the genius one has come to expect from Bob Dylan and the tossed off clichés about gypsies and dreams and love that he's relied upon to string his songs together since Time Out of Mind. Again, forgive me. For all I know, this has been the way of his records since the late-1970s, but I've had to work my way through the more dismal parts of the catalogue piecemeal to avoid certain mental collapse. I get Shot of Love and Infidels mixed up to this day, and I almost checked into a hospital after getting through Knocked Out Loaded.
It's difficult, though, to think about Together Through Life in a vacuum. All of Dylan's records immediately beg comparison with others and consideration of his evolution as a songwriter. In many ways, I feel about this album the exact same way I feel about Love & Theft and Modern Times. Half of it is really great, certainly worthy of Dylan's name, and half is entirely forgetful. There are times on all three albums the band sounds as if they're plodding through a practice session. For some songs, this approach works, and for others, it doesn't. There seems to be little consistency, and one must think that Dylan does what he feels like when he feels like it, so you take what you can get from his recent work.
His voice, these days, is so gravelly that he speaks in little other than a beautiful, worn croak, and almost nothing that comes out of him can be considered a "note" even if you are able to hear a little hint of melody. In many ways, this is the voice he's been waiting for since the early-1960s, and you almost wish he'd resurrect old talking blues songs like "Talking World War III" and "Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" and retell them with all those years behind him, and the melancholy that oozes out through Dylan's playfulness in Together Through Life is most likely dually wrought. Some of it comes from the memories of his old works and the stark relief provided by his age, and some from Dylan himself, though he makes it seem always that he can look just about anything in the eye now and come away laughing. And despite any misgivings I might have about some of his current music, Dylan shines in the minor keys. We hear it on "High Water" from Love & Theft, "Ain't Talkin'" on Modern Times, and "Forgetful Heart" on Together Through Life. He sings with a sense of foreboding or suspicion that he lacked, for the most part, in the past and which we saw first and most jarringly in "Blind Willie McTell" from The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1-3 boxed set.
But I'm getting a little esoteric now, I suppose, but it's difficult to write about Bob Dylan to anyone other than rabid fans. The truth of it is that if you're not familiar [somehow] with his music, you shouldn't start with Together Through Life or any other album that came after 1966. Even if you're a casual fan of his music, acquaint yourself with his iconic folk era first and move on from there. No sense in jumping on the train at the end of the line.
Most importantly, though, fans know that you don't listen to reviews of Dylan's albums. Especially recently, there is a struggle between reviewers who will never say anything bad about Bob Dylan, who gave both Modern Times and this record 4-stars apiece and immediately anointed them masterworks in an equally masterful catalogue. The naysayers berate Dylan's loyal reviewers and are often pushed to the margins of the debate with nothing good to say about his newer records, and the real truth lies (as it often does) in between.
As Bob Dylan seems to realize, there is much to love and much to lament, and in that regard, this review, like most others, will be of little use to anyone with a genuine interest.