Bob Dylan – “Together Through Life” (2009)

April 25, 2009 at 7:57 pm (Bob Dylan, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This review of Dylan’s new album comes from this month’s issue of Blender magazine, written by Rob Sheffield (formerly of Rolling Stone). He gives the album “instant classic” 5-star status…

 

“I didn’t come here to deal with a doggone thing/I just came here to hear the drummer’s cymbal ring,” Bob Dylan snarls on “My Wife’s Home Town,” one of several blues stomps on his strikingly simple—and strikingly excellent—new album. (Turns out the little lady hails from hell.) He rasps about hard times (“State’s gone broke, the county’s dry”) and the woman who drives him mad with lust—but mostly, he revels in how banged-up and gruff his voice is with a lifetime of road dust corroding his lungs. The old song-and-dance man sings like he’s been gargling with bleach and chasing it with ammonia. When he lets out a lowdown chuckle at the end of the song, he sounds demented. Has any rock star gotten such a perverse kick out of old age?


Together Through Life comes out a few weeks before Dylan’s 68th birthday, when he’ll be two years shy of where Muddy Waters’ tour of duty ended, and three years older than when Howlin’ Wolf went off to sit on top of the world. Even when he was a babyface punk in Cuban-heel boots, Dylan reveled in pretending to be world-weary and grizzled, like the blues and country veterans he idolized. Now that he’s ancient enough to be one of them, he’s having the time of his life. And the fact that he gets an honest–to–Woody Guthrie economic crash to sing about? Gravy.


You can’t get mad at Bob Dylan for consistently putting out great new records in his 60s, the way he failed or refused to do in his 30s, 40s or 50s. Ever since he figured out how to write tough-buzzard songs, on his 1997 comeback Time Out of Mind, he’s been knocking them out of the park. This one leans hard on ready-made blues in the citified-country-ways style of Chess Records, particularly the kingpin swagger of Waters and Wolf, but Dylan loots all kinds of vintage sounds, rambling through Django Reinhardt guitar jazz (“Life Is Hard”), Mexicali country waltzes (“This Dream of You”) and decadent cafe tango (“Beyond Here Lies Nothing”).


The stand-up bass from Tony Garnier and accordion from David Hidalgo (of Los Lobos fame) give the music a sense of open space; the guitar from Mike Campbell (of Don Henley/Tom Petty fortune) gives it an undercurrent of menace. These songs kick with none of the longueurs of his last album, Modern Times. Dylan doesn’t want to spend eight minutes on a piano ballad like “Spirit on the Water”—when you really see a flood coming, you just run. And in these songs, he’s always running from something.


“I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I’m reading James Joyce,” Dylan broods over the soul lilt of “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” before adding the punch line: “Some people tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice.” Well, yeah. He’s got enough blood and rust in his pipes to get away with reminiscing “I nearly got killed during the Mexican War,” or serenading the object of his desire with “You are as whorish as ever.” He definitely isn’t in prophet mode on Together Through Life, which is a bonus. This has to be his least Biblical album in decades—a reference to “the fourth part of the day” (that’s Nehemiah 9:3) is pretty much it. Instead, he devotes his finest lines to the ladies, leering, “If you wanna live easy, baby, pack your clothes with mine.” (Yeah, that’s it: Take your advice on how to live easy from Bob Dylan.) Even songs that start off seeming like they’re about existential matters turn out to concern affairs of the heart. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” … if you’re not with me! “Life Is Hard” … without you!


But he saves his haymaker for last: “It’s All Good,” where the old-school N.W.A fan brings the gangsta flava to a guitar rant heisted from Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking?” When he roars, “I’m gonna pluck off your beard and blow it in your face/This time tomorrow I’ll be rolling in your place,” he savors the way the threat comes rolling out his mouth, stained with blood and tobacco. It has the apocalyptic fervor of classics like “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” or “Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood),” but his voice has cracked into an ungodly comic weapon. By the end, he’s chanting “it’s all good,” turning it into a lewd joke—he’s going off the cliff along with everyone else, yet he’s laughing all the way down.

 

Rob Sheffield

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President Obama’s Weekly Address (April 25, 2009)

April 25, 2009 at 8:46 am (Life & Politics)

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