on Bob Dylan’s new album ›Together Through Life‹
Alongside the American publications Rolling Stone and the New Yorker, the British magazines Mojo and Uncut, Spex is one of three German magazines to have been granted a listening session of the new album by Bob Dylan, entitled »Together Through Life«. Max Dax was able to listen to it twice altogether – so it is still too early for a comprehensive, well founded critique. But his notes – a rough protocol in illegible stenography – were sufficient for a song-by-song review as the first part of the big Spex Online special on Bob Dylan - with the explicit possibility of wrongly heard and therefore incorrectly quoted song lyrics.
The album – by a long way the most nervously anticipated by fans and press so far this year – turns out to be a surprising and entirely well-rounded record, with a marked Mexican/Cajun influence. It sounds like a summer album, full of longing for the American South and a time that is lost forever. While on his previous records »Love & Theft« (2001) and »Modern Times« (2006) Dylan was still singing in bitter protest against those modern times and evoking old epochs, it seems that the meanwhile 67 year old singer has at last made peace with the fact that no one can alter the march of time. And In the face of this irrefutable knowledge, the only thing that helps is - an accordion!
Translated from German by Alex Paulick (Coloma)
Siehe auch: Dieser Artikel auf deutsch / This article in German
1. »Beyond Here Lies Nothin’«
We hear a trumpet, an accordion, a low-tuned acoustic guitar, a Hammond organ and a pumping electric bass - but the band is driven by the rumba-blues rhythm of the drums. Bob Dylan opens his new album with the lines: »Oh well I love you pretty baby / You’re the only love I’ve ever known / Just as long as you stay with me / The whole world is my throne / Beyond here lies nothing / Nothing we can call our own.« It is a love song of the raw, disillusioned kind, which holds its appeal by virtue of the band’s rough-hewn pleasure in playing.
Surprising are the choice of rhythm and the disarming sound palette: a Latin feel is present, suggesting a "south-of-the-border" mood - an American expression referring to Mexican music and the way of life beyond the Rio Grande. The accordion as a rhythmic element and the trash-can blues trumpet are striking, and might otherwise suggest a similarity to Tom Waits – although Dylan sings much less theatrically and isn’t angling for an effect.
»Beyond Here Lies Nothin’« is the perfect opener, manifesting an easiness which marks out the territory of the whole album. With the accordion, it seems as if Dylan is intentionally expanding the sound of his long-standing live band, using the new instrument as a kind of wild card. The western swing references, which for all intents and purposes were exhausted after »Love & Theft« and »Modern Times«, have been discarded. A surprising looseness is established, and seems to announce that the deck has been reshuffled! On accordion: David Hidalgo of Los Lobos from East L.A.
2. »Life Is Hard«
The instrumentation of this slow, sentimental ballad suggests the sound of the thirties or forties: steel guitar, mandolin, accordion, brushed drums, upright bass. Dylan sings with tender, onomatopoeic phrasing: »The sun is sinking low / I guess it’s time to go / I feel a chilly breeze / In place of memories / My dreams are locked and barred / Admitting life is hard / Without you near me.« The intriguing rhythmic interplay between the straight vocal line and swinging jazz drums leaves the tune floating in a state of ambiguity. Apparently, this song was the genesis of »Together Through Life«. It was originally written by Dylan as a contribution to »My Own Love Song«, a new film by Olivier Dahan, and was recorded in October of last year. During the work on this song, Dylan saw the beginnings of something bigger, which led him to extend the recording sessions, resulting in the ten new songs on this album.
3. »My Wife’s Home Town«
An ironic, at first seemingly threatening blues tune. This song probably most clearly demonstrates what Dylan means in a recent interview with Bill Flanagan on Bobdylan.com (PDF) when he talks about the influence of the sound of the Chicago blues label Chess Records. This track, slightly too slow to be roadhouse blues, very much resembles Muddy Waters classics like »Mannish Boy« or »I Just Wanna Make Love to You«. Yet the accordion plays unexpectedly bright major chords and Dylan foils the mood, grumbling with twinkle in his eye: »She can make you steal / Make you rob / Give you the hives / Make you lose your tongue / Can make things bad / She can make things worse / She got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse«. The lasting impression is of something like Muddy Waters singing a Lyle Lovett song: »There ain’t no way to put me down / I just wanna say that Hell’s my wife’s home town«. After adding a long »hoooooometown« to the last chorus, Dylan even laughs diabolically before the song fades out.
4. »If You Ever Go to Houston«
The musical atmosphere of this outstanding song evokes cinematic images. The sea breeze that blows across the Gulf of Mexico into Texas also blows through this song. It has a vague echo of some old Cajun standard, the title of which the singer has since forgotten. But the piece is a little too slow to be a Cajun tune - like most songs on »Together Through Life« seem ›too slow‹ for their referential genre in a strangely pleasant way. The pedal steel, organ and accordion block out the optimistic riff throughout the track, and the relaxed shuffle is driven by acoustic guitar and brushes.
Dylan sings in the spaces which open up in between: »If you are ever down there / (…) / You better watch out for the man with the shining star / Better know where you are going / Or stay where you are«, or: »I know these streets / I’ve been here before / I nearly got killed here / During the Mexican War«. With these lyrics he makes unequivocally clear that the Texan-Mexican border town feeling is not only meant musically, but word for word - and not only in this piece, but throughout the entire record. Also worth mentioning is that Dylan is really singing here: he holds the notes, singing emphatically with a joyful passion. This is something we haven’t heard from him in years.
5. »Forgetful Heart«
The most unspectacular song on »Together Through Life«: organ pads, a sluggish beat, tambourine, a distorted steel guitar and the accordion meandering in the background. In its form, »Forgetful Heart« reminds of slower, late Dylan classics like »Nettie Moore« or »Ain’t Talkin’« or »Can’t Wait« – but lacks the observational clarity and literary precision of those songs. Perhaps it is due to the subject matter? Dylan sings: »Forgetful heart / Lost your power of recall / Every little detail / You don’t remember at all / The times we knew / Who would remember better than you?«
Another song written in a roadhouse blues frame: in »Jolene« the shuffle driven by the electric guitar motif reminds of Little Richard's »Lucille«, but the song is maybe too slow for this musical comparison. The phrase »I am the king and you are the queen / Jolene« invites another comparison, to David Bowie's »Heroes«, and the lines: »I could be king and you could be queen«. Along with »Forgetful Heart« this is another song where format is more pronounced than originality. But all the songs on »Together Through Life«, including the less strong ones like »Jolene«, are driven by a simplicity which predestines them to be played live often and extensively.
The overall sound of the album contributes to an assumption: This is a spontaneous recording. Again and again little flubs and bum notes are audible, which assumedly haven't been corrected or rerecorded for the sake of this impression. The songs are written more simply as well, as if Dylan didn't want to invest so much time as to burden the songs with excessive encryption, levels of interpretation and abstraction, but rather to capture a moment. In this respect, »Together Through Life« has something in common with the 19 year old album »Under the Red Sky«. But where that album suffers noticeably under the heavy handed Don Was production values of 1990, and the mixing desk was often more audible than the live room, Dylan's new record profits from a real-time naturalism which wasn't obviously or artificially manipulated through post-production.
7. »This Dream of You«
First impression: singer and band are back in Mexico. To be more precise, with this song Dylan conjures up the aesthetic and the romantic-melancholic mood of his own classic »Romance In Durango« from 1976. Accordion, upright bass and fiddle form the backbone of this slow rumba-ballad. One of the most beautiful lines, not only of this song, but of the entire album, says: »There is a moment where all things become new again / But that moment might have come and gone / All I have and all I know / Is this dream of you / That keeps me moving on«. Dylan doesn't cultivate the old notion of Mexico as an exotic place of longing only with this song - as early as 1963 he wrote the lines »I’ve heard tell of a town / Where I might as well be bound / It’s down around / The old Mexican plains« in the song »Farewell«. Although the outtake from the »The Times They Are A’Changing« sessions was never released, he returned to the subject in »Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues« from 1965 – »When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez / And it’s Eastertime too«. Not to mention that albums like »Desire« or »Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid« are choc full of such references.
8. »Shake Shake Mama«
An abrupt change of mood: in this rumbling barroom stomp Dylan shoots off a fireworks display of innuendos and sexual connotations: »Shake shake Mama / Shake like a ship going out to sea« (…) »I get the blues for you baby / When I look up at the sun / Come back here / We can have some real fun« (…) »Shake shake Mama / Shake until the break of day / I’m right here baby / I’m not that far away«. A song like this reemphasizes the previously mentioned comparison with »Under the Red Sky«, suggesting that »Shake Shake Mama« is the »Wiggle Wiggle« of this record, simply adding another song to a genre – and therefore absolutely legible as an artistic defensive reaction against the efforts to weigh each and every one of Dylan's syllables on a gold scale.
9. »I Feel a Change Comin’ On«
Alongside »If You Ever Go to Houston«, »My Wife’s Home Town« and »This Dream of You«, this is one of the outstanding songs on the new album. One of the two key verses says: »What’s the use in dreaming / You got better things to do / Dreams never did work for me anyway / Even when they are getting true«. The other: »Some people they tell me / I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice«. That might sound heavy and fatalistic, but it is countered by Dylan's crooning voice. It appears that an optimist is singing the sunny hook line: »I feel a change comin’ on« – an impression that is immediately tempered one line later with Dylan's cryptic statement: »And the fourth part of the day is already gone«.
During an interview with the London newspaper The Times, given last year in Denmark, Dylan was atypically outspoken in his sympathy for the presidential candidate Barack Obama. This song sounds as if he would now like to say, after the election: »surely some things will change for the better, but it's too late anyway«. Although the song is sung happily, it speaks for the prophetic interpretation that throughout this album, Dylan is apparently quoting entire lines from Chaucer's »Canterbury Tales« – that quintessential tome of English literature from the 14th century, which among other topics includes the misuse of religion for political ends. But before we get caught up in over-interpretation, it should be mentioned that »I Feel a Change Comin’ On« is pretty darned similar to »Handy Dandy« in its lively and happy mood. That nursery-rhyme-like number is yet another song from the aforementioned »Under the Red Sky«. Of all songs – and after nearly two decades – Dylan played it live for the very first time last year, on the 28th of June in Vigo, Spain. Perhaps it occurred to him that it might be worth revisiting the simplicity of this song, or for that matter, the entire record.
10. »It’s All Good«
The last song of this remarkable album, »It’s All Good«, might still be a little to slow for a Zydeco tune, even despite the driving accordion and its Cajun shuffle rhythm. Here, Dylan displays his sarcastic side: similarly to in his song »Everything Is Broken« from 1989, he lists things that are going wrong, to finally comment with a dry »It’s all good«. Considering that this is the closing chapter of an album which is to be released in the dark days of a financial crisis, perhaps the biggest crisis in the history of capitalism, the song rattles on breathlessly like a freight train, and is beyond all seriousness.
Dylan sings of »Wives leaving their husbands« and »Big politicians telling lies«, but: »It’s all good«. »Brick by brick they tear you down / A teacup of water is enough to drown / You oughta know if they could they would / Whatever goes down / It’s all good«. In the past it has been the case that ›easier‹ or ›more lively‹ Dylan records preceded an artistic fresh start for the singer. After »Street Legal« followed »Slow Train Coming«, after »Under the Red Sky« the album »Good As I Been to You«, after »Another Side …« came »Bringing It All Back Home«. So what does the future hold? Dylan alone at the piano? We are prepared for anything.
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