Mojo’s Four-Star Review of “Together Through Life”Apr 17, 2009
Like life – that other great imponderable – Bob Dylan is full of surprises. He surprised us in the mid-’60s by resigning his portfolio as ordained prophet of the nascent counterculture. He surprised us (an understatement, perhaps) with his mid-’70s conversion to born again Christianity and the hellfire records that followed. And he’s surprising us now, with this purple patch of renewed vigour, consistency and a new record seemingly out of the blue.
More so than Modern Times – a good record, but (can it now be said?) one which lacked a 24-carat humdinger, a Mississippi or a Love Sick – Together Through Life is an album that gets its hooks in early and refuses to let go. It’s dark yet comforting, with a big tough sound, booming slightly like a band grooving at a soundcheck in an empty theatre. And at its heart there is a haunting refrain. Because above everything this is a record about love, its absence and its remembrance.
It’s there, amid the heavy rumble of opener Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, as the humid bass of Tony Garnier and the stinging lead guitar of The Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell goad a Dylan cursed to navigate “boulevards of broken cars”, haunted too by David Hidalgo’s ever-present accordion, an uncanny echo of Al Kooper’s organ underpinning of yore.
Dylan pursues his ancient love through this landscape, full of apocalyptic landmarks only half-glimpsed, until he smacks straight into Life Is Hard, the lachrymose country-jazz ballad which, once commissioned for Olivier Dahan’s soon-come movie, My Own Love Song, set his writerly juices flowing a year ago. “Since we’ve been out of touch/I haven’t felt that much,” he growls, a gloomy bullfrog with emphysema. “From day to barren day/My heart stays locked away.”
Life Is Hard is paradigmatic of all that’s great about Together Through Life. On a record with a high melody count it has one of the best, requiring a high register leap in the chorus that Dylan really has to haul himself into. More typically still, it’s excruciatingly crepuscular and sad, not the only farewell wave on a record full of narrators who are hanging on the best they can, their grip failing by the day: “The sun is sinking low/I guess it’s time to go/I feel a chilly breeze/In place of memories.” Memory was Modern Times’ preoccupation too, but there’s something crueller about the tricks it plays in Together Through Life. In Forgetful Heart the past harboured love; now our narrator lies awake and listens to “the sound of pain”. But it’s unclear if it’s her faithlessness being castigated, or his. Life is meaningless, Dylan seems to say; only love makes it bearable, and even that hightails it in the end. It’s almost Beckettian.
Is this Dylan? Is this how he feels? Hard to say. These songs have shifting perspectives – tragic, comic, satirical. Some of them sound like a scrapbook of pensées, grouped by theme – not stories as such. Surely that’s Dylan, “listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce” in I Feel A Change Comin’ On – how could it be anyone else? Maybe that’s some other fellow, lost in the barrooms of Austin, Fort Worth and San Anton’ in the hard-swinging, gun-toting If You Ever Go To Houston, although Dylan has spent so long imagining himself into the North American Southwest it’s as if he’s left a splinter of himself there.
This Dream Of You is the record’s most Tex-Mex moment, driven on by a lyrical meld of violin and accordion, while Dylan’s narrator is tormented by thoughts of a long-gone señorita that stalk the night and haunt the day. “There’s a moment when all things become new again,” he muses. “But that moment might have come and gone.” The missed opportunity hangs there, agonisingly, and yet it’s still “this dream of you that keeps me living on.”
This is transfixing stuff, but it’s not even the record’s best track. That’s the already-previewed I Feel A Change Comin’ On, which pivots on another of this record’s twilight reflections – “The last part of the day is already gone” – but it’s a gorgeous little melodic sting in a song that’s full of warmth. “Life is for love/And they say that
love is blind,” sings Dylan, gaily. “If you wanna live easy/Baby, pack your clothes with mine.” One of his best easygoing romances, file it with If Not For You and I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.
So Together Through Life is not without levity, and there’s a twinkle in Dylan’s bloodshot eye. Shake Shake Mama is a rockin’ picaresque in a classic Dylan vein, full of salty-tongued women and ludicrous judges, soundtracked by great niggles of just-distorting valve amp guitar. And in the Chess blues lope of My Wife’s Home Town there’s even a variant on the mother-in-law joke. Dylan enjoys it so much he imparts two hearty, malicious cackles in the outro, but we’re not meant to take it seriously. “There are reasons for that/There are reasons for this,” its narrator shrugs. “I can’t think of any right now/But I know they exist.”
Chuckles aside, Together Through Life ends as it begins, with a glimpse of the end of days. The sarcasm-rich It’s All Good is gleefully, relentlessly rendered – imagine Subterranean Homesick Blues delivered by the incensed moralist of Slow Train Coming’s Gotta Serve Somebody (the latter is back in favour, by the way, having opened at least two recent Dylan shows, in Copenhagen on March 29 and Saarbrücken on April 5). Mendacious politicos, starving farmers, widows and orphans swirl in a fever-dream of the world financial crisis, although according errant wives equal billing in this menu of Gomorrah’s ills lends an edge of farce. Where does Dylan stand, exactly, on the topic du jour? If he knows, he’s not saying – at least not quite.
If we’re used to anything, we’re used to Dylan’s riddle-me-rees, but the 67-year-old model appears more than ever to delight in the impression of knowing more than he’s letting on. It’s the prerogative of the elderly, perhaps. It’s not that they like to see younger folk make their own mistakes (although sometimes you wonder); it’s that they know we’re going to make those mistakes whatever they say. Truly, wisdom is wasted on the young.
Today’s Dylan sounds like a man who’s already delivered his valediction, as if long past the point where he’s taken full stock. There is no statement to make, just tunes to write and life to live. And each new record finds him slightly amazed, slightly amused that he’s still here, granted another curtain call.
These days, it seems, the old surpriser is even surprising himself.