A few months ago Bob Dylan surprised everyone—including his record company—with the announcement that he had recorded a new album, and last month Together Through Life was released, to the jubilance of Dylan cronies like me everywhere.  At nearly 68 years of age, the great rock bard is nearing the end of his extraordinary career.  So each new album is a yet more precious gift.  What is most remarkable is that late-period Dylan is arguably his very best.  The most recent trio of albums—including Love and Theft, Modern Times, and Together Through Life—form what I have begun calling Dylan’s Americana Trilogy, all having been produced by Jack Frost (Dylan’s pseudonym as record producer) and showcasing a rootsy, relaxed kind of energy to match consistently strong compositions.  However many more albums he records, the first decade of the 21st century will surely go down as a peak Dylan period.

200px-together_through_lifeDylan’s voice is now a gravelly rasp but still quite capable of delivering powerful emotions, startling metaphors, and home truths.  Dylan smartly surrounds his vocals with equally raw instrumentation, including David Hidalgo’s accordion which graces most of the songs on the album.  What no one seems to have noticed is the prominence of guitar work on this album, thanks especially to Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame).  No other Dylan album (among the 30+ he has recorded) features so many guitar solos.  In fact, there are multiple solos on most of the songs—gritty but melodic stuff that richly accents the lyrics.

Here’s a quick survey of the tracks, most of which Dylan co-wrote with Grateful Dead wordsmith, Robert Hunter:

“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” – This minor-key tex-mex rocker is the ideal opener for this song cycle, setting the mood for the album which consistently makes the listener feel like he’s sitting in a smoke-filled border town café.  Think Carlos Santana meets Los Lobos, with a generous helping of 1950s Sun Records spontaneity:  “I’m movin’ after midnight down boulevard of broken cars; don’t know what I’d do with out it—without this love that we call ours.  Beyond here lies nothin’—nothin’ but the moon and stars.”

“Life is Hard” – This song was the seed crystal of the entire project, as Dylan and his band went into the studio to record to this tune for the upcoming film My Own Love Song and it ballooned into an album project.  This slow swinging romantic ballad is deceptively complex musically—one of Dylan’s most sophisticated ever.  An instant classic, really, that won’t be immediately recognized as such because Dylan’s voice isn’t strong or nimble enough to do it justice.  But in the hands of a capable jazz singer, the genius of this song would become apparent.  If only Nina Simone were still alive…

“My Wife’s Home Town” – This stark brooding tune works as an anthem for every husband who’s been tortured by his wife’s disapproval:  “She can make you steal, make you rob, give you the hives, make you lose your job.  She can make things bad; she can make things worse.  She’s got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse.”  In spite of this, he confesses, “my love for her is all I know.”  In many ways, this song’s black humor typifies the entire album.

“If You Ever Go to Houston” – An upbeat nostalgic piece featuring a tasty interplay of classical guitar, organ, accordion, and pedal-steel guitar.  “If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right.  Keep your hands in your pockets and hang your gun belt tight.  You’ll be asking for trouble, if you look for a fight.”  But, as with most of these songs, the lyric redounds to his own emotions:  “Put my tears in a bottle, screw the top on tight; if you ever go to Houston, you better walk right.”

“Forgetful Heart” – Another minor-key meditation, at turns sad and angry, featuring a dark swirl of quiet guitar distortion.  In the face of lost love, Dylan sings “the door has closed forevermore, if indeed there ever was a door”—one of those lines with potentially endless applications to life situations.  Is it regret?  Exasperation?  A sense of futility in the hands of cruel fate?  Perhaps all of the above.

“Jolene” – In the refrain to this rollicking bluesy number the singer declares to his lover, “I am the king and you are the queen.”  But the irony is that despite his pronouncements, it is he who is ruled by his lover.  Dueling guitar solos punctuate the song and drive home the theme.

“This Dream of You” – A mournful quasi-waltz draped with accordion, violin, and a plaintive refrain:  “All I have and all I know is this dream of you which keeps me living on.”  This is another song which, like “Life is Hard,” displays a surprising musical elegance.  While one of the greatest writers of blues music, Dylan’s reach as a composer extends into diverse genres, even parlor jazz and show tunes, as each album in the Americana Trilogy demonstrates.

“Shake Shake Mama” – A rocking blues tune with more gut-punching dueling guitars and humorous social commentary:  “Some of you women really know your stuff; but your clothes are all torn and your language is a little too rough.”  But, at bottom, it’s a blues song, as Dylan declares, “I’m fatherless, motherless, and almost friendless too.”

“I Feel a Change Comin’ On” – This is a bouncy tune with an optimistic musical vibe offset by a melancholic lyric.  “Life is for love, and they say that love is blind.  If you want to live easy, baby, pack your clothes with mine.”  Again, however, the happiness is derailed:  “Well, now what’s the use in dreaming.  You’ve got better things to do.  Dreams never did work for me anyway even when they did come true.”

“Its all Good” – If Together Through Life is essentially a musical dark comedy, then its signature song is this closer.  Some reviewers have actually called it upbeat and positive.  Chalk one up for superficial assessment.  This is a sardonic jest at the shallow optimism behind the idiom of the song title.  But this seems lost on some listeners, in spite of lines like these:  “People in the country, people on the land, some of them so sick they can hardly stand.  Everybody would move away, if they could.  It’s hard to believe, but its all good.”  And this:  “The widows cry.  The orphans bleed.  Everywhere you look, there’s more misery.  Come along with me.  I wish you would.  You know what I’m saying—it’s all good.”  Right.  The truth is things are very far from all good.  In fact, nothing in this world is all good, as Dylan has been reminding us for almost fifty years.  This world is a tragic place, and we’ll eventually lose our sanity if we don’t follow the implicit advice of the album’s title.

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