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Minor Keys

Bob Dylan sticks with the tried and true on Together Through Life

Courtesy Alex Fine

By Michaelangelo Matos | Posted 5/13/2009

The wonder of Bob Dylan's last three non-vault albums--1997's Time Out of Mind, 2001's Love and Theft, and 2006's Modern Times--is that on them, he took a lot of ready-made ideas and made something that was both familiar and utterly his own. This in itself was nothing new--it's what he'd built a career upon back in the 1960s. Still, the tools he was utilizing were cannily chosen. Chicago blues from the '50s, pre-World War II jazz and pop, old folk and country--the broad outliers of what has become lumped together over the '00s as "Americana"--formed a stylistic backbone (or three) to prop up Dylan cracking wise and foreseeing doom in about equal measure.

That's not quite the case with the new Together Through Life (Columbia), and not just because the only thing he's really doomy about is his choice of mate--see "My Wife's Home Town," which, in case you were wondering, is Hell. That song swipes the tune from "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (and credits Willie Dixon for it), inverting the original song's sentiment: "State gone broke/ The county's dry/ Don't be looking at me with that evil eye." But the pronouncements are tucked into the music, a good example of how Dylan lowers his own ante. A lot of the time, these aren't ready-mades with a twist so much as they are simply ready-mades.

Still, minor Dylan has its privileges. By "minor," of course, I mean "pretty good," rather than "awful" (a description that still applies to plenty of Dylan's music, especially from the '80s). In that sense, Together Through Life belongs less in the company of Time Out of Mind or Love and Theft or Modern Times than with such minor-Dylan markers as Nashville Skyline (1969), New Morning (1970), Planet Waves (1974), and Oh Mercy (1989). And even albums like those have tended to be mistaken for great Dylan at first: Rolling Stone greeted New Morning with the infamous pronouncement, "We've got Dylan back again." Easy as it is to mock this, it's sort of understandable: come on like a prophet the way Dylan did early on and every utterance becomes life-or-death to a lot of people--for a couple weeks, anyway.

Dylan has always liked to make his albums quickly, sped along since Love and Theft by producing himself under the alias Jack Frost. But Together Through Life sounds like it was written quickly, too. Or rather, co-written: in addition to the Dixon rewrite, the lyrics to all but one song ("This Dream of You") are credited to Dylan and Robert Hunter, the longtime songwriting partner of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. The results are less a meeting of two Americana titans than an amble through comfortable terrain. (It's not Dylan and Hunter's first collaboration: they co-wrote two songs on 1988's desultory Down in the Groove.) Together Through Life is certainly slighter than the triad preceding it, but it does have a lived-in feel that gives the album its own kind of charm.

Together kicks off with "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'"--made available as a free MP3 through Dylan's own web site a month and a half before the album's release--which features what may be the swankiest groove he's sung along with. It's a blues shuffle with healthy touches of New Orleans--the terse, liquid blues patterns of Mike Campbell's guitar and Donnie Herron's low-mixed trumpet responses--and Brazil (the beat nods toward samba), with Los Lobos main man David Hidalgo's jolly accordion spicing things further. The lyrics are slight even if you grant them their old-song allusions--"Well, I'm moving after midnight/ Down boulevards of broken cars," he says, tweaking both Wilson Pickett's "I'm a Midnight Mover" and the '30s standard "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." But the lyrics aren't the point here: the slinking rhythm is. "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" may not be one of Dylan's great songs, but it's probably his best single since the mid-'70s.

"Beyond Here" is a cheeky barroom romp, and that's the style Together settles into most comfortably. "If You Ever Go to Houston" features Hidalgo's accordion acting as aural counterpoint to lines like, "I nearly got killed here/ During the Mexican war." Then there's "I Feel a Change Comin' On," the smoothest piece of music on the album and hence the sneakiest, not least for the way it punctures Dylan's own aura: "Some people, they tell me I got the blood of the land in my voice," he cracks. As for the change itself, he's got mixed feelings, as usual:

So yeah, he's still restless--even if he doesn't especially sound it.

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