Music Review: “Together Through Life” by Bob Dylan

Originally posted 2009-05-04 23:29:25. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

RATING:  3.5 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

For many avid music listeners, it feels as though Bob Dylan has indeed been together with us through life.

He started out simple in the sixties — just an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and his aged-before-its-time voice.  By the end of the decade, he had gone electric, gone back to acoustic, and gone to Nashville to aid in the popularization of country rock.

Before the seventies were out, he recorded covers, rediscovered rock, discovered female background singers, and found God.  The next two decades were hit and miss — although any true Dylan fan will tell you that even Knocked Out Loaded has its charms…

Since 1997, Dylan has released what many refer to as his comeback trilogy (Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times), although he has cryptically referred to Love & Theft as the first in a trilogy.

Now, less than a year away from a new decade and one more than that from his 50th anniversary in the recording business, Dylan has released his most fun and accessible album in years.  “Together Through Life” may have the nostalgic sound and rusted, creaky voice that has been characteristic of Dylan’s recent work, but the subject matter and the tone of the songs is refreshingly light…

…for Dylan, that is.

Upon first glance, the title of the third track – “My Wife’s Home Town” – suggests a song of fond recollection about a spouse’s origins.  And yet that is not the case at all.  As Dylan repeats in the chorus, “I just want to say that hell is my wife’s home town…”

The song concludes with a chuckling sound from Dylan that is reminiscent of the gutteral laugh in Elvis Presley’s Christmas classic “Santa Claus is Back in Town.”  This song is a prime example of the alteration in tone on this most recent Dylan release.  As the cover would suggest, love is a recurring topic that is approached with directness and a sense of humor that wasn’t evident on Modern Times.

For many reasons, Modern Times is a technically superior album — lyrically, instrumentally, and in terms of overall progression.  That being said, Together Through Life is perhaps the most accessible of Dylan’s post-millenium recordings.  The songs are short — most are in the 3-4 minute range — and the album only gets better as you listen, track after track.

“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” the album starter, is a nice opening that lyrically toys with the listener, seeming at its face to be a song about a dedicated relationship.  Dylan sings, “As long as you stay with me, the whole world is my throne.”

“Beyond here lies nothin’,” he continues, “Nothin’ we can call our own.”

By the end of the song, you are left to wonder whether the narrator is staying in his relationship for love — the kind of love that reduces all outside elements to “nothin'” — or because there is simply nowhere else, nowhere better, to go.

The true highlights come during the second half of the album (side B, for those of you who purchased the vinyl edition).

“Jolene” fits firmly into my long list of favorite songs with a girl’s first name for a title — BnL’s “Maybe Katie,” the Beach Boys’ “Wendy,” and Fountains of Wayne’s “Hey Julie” to name a few.

Likewise, “Shake Shake Mama” is perhaps the most rockin’ number on the album, although it is a fairly standard blues progression.

Finally, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” is the best song on the album.  Lyrically, instrumentally, and compositionally (a middle AND a solo!), this song has a catchy chorus and comes as a bit of a surprise as the ninth and penultimate track.

“Life is Hard” and “It’s All Good” act as bookends of sorts to the album as a whole, the former setting the theme early on and the latter bringing it all to a conclusion.  As is typical of the album, Dylan plants his tongue at least lightly in his cheek and turns a cliched phrase into the perfect chorus.

At the end of the day, Together Through Life will not be remembered as one of his best albums.  In a sense, though, it was never intended to be.  It came on quickly, surprising even me when its existence was announced a month before its release in Rolling Stone.  Apparently, Dylan hit upon inspiration after co-writing “Life is Hard” with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter for the Olivier Dahan film My Own Love Song.

Dylan’s spacing between album releases has been 4-5 years for as long as I can recall, and this one came a mere three years after its predecessor.

While the time between releases is a unexpectedly brief and the fact that he collaborated on all but one song (“This Dream of You”) is surprising, it was perhaps not a shock that Hunter is the collaborator.  After all, Dylan and the Dead have a longstanding relationship and mutual respect.  Truly, according to Dylan, his tour with the Dead in the eighties revitalized his passion for performing at a time when he was losing that particular spark.

Now, like an all-star pitcher who is starting on fewer days’ rest than usual, Dylan’s performance on Together Through Life may not be epic, but it is still amazing.

Together Through Life: A Look Back at Ten (Officially Released) Bob Dylan Rarities – PART ONE

Originally posted 2009-03-21 11:57:53. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

By Chris Moore:

Ironically, three months after the latest Bruce Springsteen release, we have the “New Dylan” to look forward to…

No, this isn’t a nickname for some new artist on the scene that sounds like Dylan; this is literally a new release from the man himself.  Not a bootleg, not a concert, not a single track soundtrack offering–

–a brand-new Bob Dylan studio album!

Set for an official release date of April 28th, 2009, Together Through Life is comprised of ten tracks that interviewer Bill Flanagan has compared to the sound of early 1950s Chess records.  When asked if he likes that sound, Dylan replied, “Oh yeah, very much so. . . the old Chess records, the Sun records. . . I think that’s my favorite sound for a record.”

Needless to say, the album is reportedly nothing like his 2006 number one album Modern Times.  That makes this new record all the more exciting, sparking many questions regarding what the album will sound like, what the lyrics will be, and how the songs will hold up to others in his impressive catalog.

Some may be content to wait (I mean, after all, the first rumors of the album only broke a few weeks ago, less than two months before the release).  On the other hand, I needed to hear Dylan and lots of him.  Which album did I choose?  Which songs?

All of them.

For the past two weeks, I have been playing my 622 Dylan tracks as a randomly ordered playlist on my iPod.  Currently, I’m listening to “Highlands” — I’m halfway through the song with only eight minutes to go! — which is the 447th song out of 622.  The rules of this game?  You are not allowed to skip a track for any reason, even if the track is from Down in the Groove or it’s the thirteenth version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” that you’ve heard.

It’s been great fun, and so I’d like to share my favorite ten songs that I had either forgotten about or haven’t heard in a long time.  In no particular order, here goes…

Ten (Officially Released) Bob Dylan Rarities

1)  “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie” – Both the first and the last time that Dylan would recite one of his poems on stage, this 1963 recitation is among my favorite tracks of all time.  If I close my eyes as I listen, I can picture a young Dylan on a sparse stage, pouring out words upon words at a rapid pace, and all the while, perhaps unbeknownst even to himself, he was about to descend into the crazy blur of groundbreaking songwriting, electricity, and the motorcycle accident that was 1964-1966.  What a poem.  When this came up on my iPod last week, I was about to get out of my car to pump gas.  Instead, I stayed in the car, head bowed and eyes closed to simply listen.  (Passersby must have wondered…)

2) “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” (Live, Concert for Bangladesh) -While it can’t hold a candle to the driving beat and electric energy of the Highway 61 Revisited studio version, there is something refreshing here.  Perhaps it has to do with the performance being one of Dylan’s first post-sixties live performances and seeing him dust off a track that was, at the time, six years old and five albums in the past.  As later songs — like “Dark Eyes” from 1985’s Empire Burlesque or his performance of “Girl From the North Country” at the 30th Anniversary Concert — have continued to prove, there is still something special about giving Dylan center stage with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica.  (In this case, it doesn’t hurt to have the likes of George Harrison and Ringo Starr for accompaniment!)

3)  “Up To Me” – Easily the best track from the Biograph boxset, “Up To Me” is a refugee from the September 1974 Blood on the Tracks sessions.  Early in college, the lyrics to this song were taped to the inside of my door above a mirror, and for a long time, I would read them as I combed my hair in the morning.  It has a very similar sound to “Shelter from the Storm,” so I can understand how it ultimately wasn’t a good fit for the album.  Tracks like this make boxsets like Biograph worthwhile.

4)  “Tomorrow Night” – I’ve really never been a fan of the early 90s return to acoustic, traditional songs.  Still, when this song from 1992’s Good As I Been To You — easily my least favorite of the two acoustic releases — came up, I had to stop and take notice.  There is a quality about the sound and flow of the song that is distinct and struck me as unusual for Dylan.  It made me consider giving the album another try…

5)  “If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Got To Stay All Night)” – This is Dylan at his peak as a solo performer.  He makes the crowd burst into laughter at just the right times, laying into lines brimming with subtext and a sort of straightforwardness that is refreshing in a set filled with the poetic landscapes of “Gates of Eden” and “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” as well as the political undertones of “Who Killed Davey Moore” and “With God On Our Side.”

To Be Continued…