Snap Judgment: Bob Dylan's 'Together Through Life'
Bob Dylan can do whatever the bejeezus he wants. He's made more albums than America has had presidents, he's transformed rock in the process, and in his later years he's almost singlehandedly sustained the fashion relevance of the bolo tie. No one should object if the old man just wants to go out to the woodshed and play some blues.
Longtime fans and neophytes will all probably be grateful for the economical punch provided by "Together Through Life," the bard's new studio effort, to be released without further ado April 28. Overtaken by a gush of inspiration after penning "Life Is Hard," a Django Reinhardt-kissed meditation on loneliness, for the upcoming Olivier Dahan film "My Own Love Song," Dylan wrote this bunch of fairly direct and visceral tunes. He enlisted some buddies -- an interview with scribe Bill Flanagan on Dylan's website mentions Tom Petty's longtime guitarist Mike Campbell and Los Lobos cofounder David Hidalgo -- and hit on a sound that returns to -- and refreshes -- the roots of rock and roll.
I was lucky enough to attend a listening session Thursday night, where I sat on a comfy sofa in front of a good sound system and scribbled down some notes on the 10-song set. I got one listen. Here's a quick response.
"Beyond Here Lies Nothin' ": Hidalgo's accordion is Dylan's muse throughout this album. The instrument turns what would be Jimmy Reed-style blues into something more wide-ranging: a celebration of the Latin influence that also shaped early rock. There's something Leonard Cohen-esque about Dylan's lyric, which is deeply existential and exceedingly debonair.
"Life is Hard": Dylan apparently loved Dahan's Edith Piaf story "La Vie en Rose," and agreed to pen this song for the filmmaker's "My Own Love Song." It has a French feel, with a guitar line redolent of le jazz hot and sly references to a boulevard of broken dreams. Dylan's sad "Sea of Love," it represents him as a slightly cracked crooner.
"My Wife's Home Town": Enter the Devil Woman, a dangerous central character of the blues. The wifey is from down under, and I don't mean Australia. This one is pure Howlin' Wolf. Dylan's chuckle at the end might be the best part.
"If You Ever Go to Houston": It's not that this circular walking blues sounds like Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," but there's a similar feeling in that 1965 composition. Hidalgo's accordion shines sunlight on everything. The lyric has a Wild West feel, with oblique references to the history of the town in its name.
"Forgetful Heart": The album's most mystical cut could have fit on 1997's "Time Out of Mind," with a somewhat muted atmosphere and a last line that recalls Edgar Allan Poe -- "the door has closed forevermore / if there ever was a door." A banjo plaintively calls out from deep in the mix.
"Jolene": This bar-band romp imagines the "other woman" immortalized in Dolly Parton's 1973 hit as a street-strutting queen for whom any man would leave any wife. "You're something nice, I"m gonna grab my dice," chortles the satyr as a down-home double-guitar riff propels him forward.
"This Dream of You": Dylan does mariachi! The most obviously Latin-flavored track on an album that testifies to Mexican America's right to sing the blues. Is that a slack-key guitar in there, too?
"Shake, Shake Mama": This one does just what the title says. A loud, abrupt blues with a little bit of gospel in the lyric, it brings to mind one of Chicago's last men standing, Otis Rush.
"I Feel a Change Coming On": The title seems to nod at the Obama era, but this country-tinged song is at once more universal and more personal -- a meditation on sunsets, both real and imagined. Dylan sings in a honking baritone that celebrates the rips in his vocal cords. And there's harmonica.
"It's All Good": "Throw on the dust! Pile on the dust!" Dylan shouts in this apocalypse party of a song. Sharp guitar lines and one of the album's fastest tempos gives the band a chance to fade out on a high note. Dylan's final word: Enjoy this world, even as it descends into chaos. In fact, especially enjoy the chaos.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Sony BMG