Together Through Life

May 1, 2009

Bob Dylan, Together Through Life, Columbia 2009

Although coming as a complete surprise, Bob Dylan’s latest album is a breezy, whimsical foray into Americana – a less ambitious, more earthy counterpart to his last effort, Modern Times.

Even though I attended a Dylan concert just last week, I somehow managed to avoid the discovery that he had an album on the way, such is the focus behind his marketing strategy these days. And that’s all to the good. Together Through Life sounds like it hasn’t been focused grouped.  It possesses an easy charm and never sounds forced.

Well, on the album’s second track “Life is Hard,” Dylan’s voice sounds a little forced, but it’s nice to hear him trying a more sentimental singing style rather than the rasping punchiness that many of this recent songs have employed. It also works. The song, which is (unsurprisingly) about the pitfalls of this earthly life, is sung appropriately – it’s not desperate, or maudlin, but it is wistful and fragile.

You don’t get that too much from Dylan these days.

Throughout the album, Dylan’s band grooves and shakes away – slipping from fairly sinuous mambos to more visceral blues, a musical mixture which recalls the later work of Tom Waits or Ry Cooder, not at all a bad thing. The best tracks are also lyrically strong, although it’s too much to expect Dylan to sustain such intensity throughout a full length album.

Most of the time, he sticks to well crafted, but simple, sentimental verse. It’s in keeping with the atmosphere that the band creates, which is evocative of the depression era, with human solidarity and whimsical appeals to love superceding bombast and grand  Highway 61-style  lyrical experiments.

To my mind the centre-piece is Forgetful Heart, a quite brilliant song, but Shake Shake Mama is similarly infectious, as is the first track Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ and the penultimate I Feel A Change Comin’ On. The Willie Dixon cover My Wife’s Home Town might sound bitter, but it’s delivered with a rueful, humorous sense, and works well.

As with all later Dylan albums, if you are looking for the meaning of life, or for grand philosophical speculations, or indeed for the kind of vindictive magnificence shown by Like A Rolling Stone, you aren’t going to be pleased.

But if you are looking for the kind of album that speaks charmingly and honestly with a voice of both innocence and experience, then you’ll find much to like.

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