Saturday, June 13, 2009

Together Through Life, Just Another Classic Dylan Album

What does Bob Dylan mean to me? Glad you asked! As a baby I was fed a steady diet of breast milk and Bob Dylan. While my milk supply was cut off some time ago, I still help myself to almost daily helpings of Bob. I love all Bob Dylan, and I'll be the first to admit the love hasn't always come easy. There have been some pretty shaky albums through the years, and some that are just downright confusing. Still, even on the very worst there is something worth listening to, a hidden gem you may not notice the first time around. Or the second. The reality is that, if Bob Dylan put out a $300, ten-disk instrumental concept album featuring him playing the kazoo, I'd rush to the nearest store. If I didn't have the money, I'd sell a kidney.

As a registered lifetime Bob Dylan Superfan (you get a little laminated card and a secret decoder pin), I feel qualified to set something straight: Bob Dylan is NOT a poet. That is not to say he doesn't write poetry; check out his book of verse, Tarantula, if you want to read a little Dylan. I guess you can call his songs poems, but I lose patience with people who say, well, he's a great poet, as if his prodigious gift for writing lyrics somehow covers up for his other flaws, as if he has achieved his estimable position in music history in spite of himself.

That's a lot of horseshit. Bob Dylan is a musician through and through, a singing, guitar picking, piano playing, harmonica blowing, melody making, all-around musical genius. He is the Beethoven of our time, a master of the total song, not just the lyric. He has influenced folk, rock, country, gospel, R&B, blues and countless other styles. He has been covered by just about everyone. You may want to check it out, because I'm pretty sure your mom has covered a Dylan song.

Together Through Life may not be Dylan's best-written album. As far as songwriting is concerned, I'd rank his previous two albums slightly higher. But like I said, he's not a poet, and there is so much to judge. Like that voice! That band! Those arrangements! Sure he was lost in the wilderness for a while in the 80s, churning out the likes of Down in the Groove and Knocked out Loaded, but for about a decade now he's been making music as good as any. Together Through Life marks his fourth straight masterwork.

Sometime back in the early nineties, after billions of songs sung and cigarettes smoked, Bob Dylan's vocal chords broke down. This was a good thing. Always a great (and I mean great in the sense that Louis Armstrong was a great trumpet player) singer, the newly acquired instrument became something like a cross between a phlegmy cough and a groaning rusty hinge. Leather, rust and grit. The songs sound like they're coming from heaven and hell simultaneously, but mostly from hell (where all the good music comes from anyway). There is simply no other instrument like it on earth, and it is sounding with all its growling and cackling glory on Together Through Life.

I'm not going to go through the songs one by one, but I will say that you won't find a dud on the album. No wasted space, just track after track of genius music. Another gift from a guy who by rights could have called it a day 40 years ago, when his legacy was already secure. He didn't, and the songs keep on coming.

Thanks, Bob!

nwb

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear, Nate! You hit it on the head.

Not his best record of the decade, but this one for some reason has more mystique musically than the previous two. Feels like a cross-hybrid of 50's Chicago blues and LA/Mexican Chicano flavor (thanks to David Hidalgo from Los Lobos on accordion).

It seems this last decade has been more about Dylan embracing and experimenting with all the sounds of what music sounded like back, say sixty years ago. The weird, old america sound that seems to be fading year after year. It makes him (& probably Tom Waits & the late Johnny Cash) so relevant as the forebearers of a time and a sound that just seems to be tossed aside and fogotten.

BTW, there's a great record by Ry Cooder did a few years back called "Chavez Ravine," which you might also like. He was trying to revoke the old Chicano sound heard in Los Angeles during the late fifties/early sixties (I guess that sound has disappeared completely).

waiting patiently for the Dylan $300 dollar kazoo box set,

-kb

Kid Shay said...

He makes it look (sound?) easy, that's for sure.

Shouldn't you be writing for Rolling Stone?

Darin said...

As another Dylan super-fan, I agree with you. This album has a feel of the past three, but with a little feel of the Pat Garrett & Billy th Kid soundtrack thrown in.

With that said, I say that Down in the Groove isn't THAT bad. It may be underrated, actually. There's Knocked Out Loaded and then there's Under the Red Sky! (and with my Superfan decoder ring, I can find the hidden gems in that one) And somehow in the middle, there was the greatness that is Oh Mercy!

Nate and Jeff Bowler, Co-Captains said...

Dave,

That accordion is totally awesome. Yeah, the "Kazoo Sessions" will no doubt be released once Michael Jackson relinquishes the rights.

Josh,

Yes, I probably should, but my true passion (the bookstore job) takes up too much time.

Darin,

Down in the Groove. Hmm. It certainly has its moments, I'll give you that. And you're right about Under the Red Sky. Woof. Then there's Self Portrait, which is simply bizarre. And what about Saved?? Actually I revisited that one after years of neglect and didn't hate it as much as I used to. Apparently me and Jesus are back on speaking terms.

nwb

Kid Shay said...

I'm not too familiar with Saved, but "What Can I Do For You" is a killer song.

Darin said...

I'm just saying I wouldn't put Down in the Groove in the same category as Knocked Out Loaded. But there a gems on every album. Even Under the Red Sky has "Born in Time" on it.

Throughout the '80s he was hit or miss, but from the mid-'90s on Dylan has been absolutley great! It's nice to be getting some consistency from him.

This album may not be as poignant as Time Out of Mind, Love and Left, or Modern Times, but Together Through Life is still incredibly strong.