Thursday, May 14, 2009

Together Through Life

BOB DYLAN, Together Through Life. Is Togther Through Life Bob Dylan's Texas album? Between its arrangements and trips through the streets of Houston, Dallas, and Austin, it just might be. The first song, though, opens with an authoritative drum shot reminiscent of the way "Like A Rolling Stone" introduces Highway 61 Revisited. From there, Dylan proceeds to investigate the territory first explored in "Too Much Of Nothing." This time, though, he's accompanied by a woman whose love offsets this brittle reality:
Down every street there's a window
And every window's made of glass
We'll keep on lovin' pretty baby
For as long as love will last
Beyond here lies nothin'
But the mountains of the past
Thematically, Dylan continues to explore the tension between love and the emptiness of a world without it. In "Forgetful Heart" he implicitly compares the psychic pain caused by neglectful love to the existential angst of Macbeth:
Forgetful heart
Like a walking shadow in my brain
All night long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed forevermore
If indeed there ever was a door
("Forgetful Heart")
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
It's an audacious comparison to say the least, and no one but Dylan has the stature to pull it off. But pull it off he does, reinforcing the point in "This Dream Of You":
How long can I stay
In this nowhere café 'fore night turns into day
I wonder why I’m so frightened of dawn
All I have and all I know
Is this dream of you which keeps me living on
("This Dream Of You")
Frightened of the dawn, wary of the mountains of the past, terrified of "dreams that are locked and barred," Dylan remains secure in the conviction that "life is love" and that love is worth pursuing and holding.

But where? Not since Blonde On Blonde has the sound of an album conveyed so much of Dylan's intent. If love is a refuge, Dylan appears to have found a haven as the house band in South Texas bodega or dancehall. Fronting one of the best bands he's ever assembled, Dylan leads them through a set of ballads, waltzes, blues, shuffles, and rockers defined by David Hidalgo's (Los Lobos) ever present accordion and Mike Campbell's (The Heartbreakers) guitar. Together Through Life has the immediacy and vitality of a live performance, and yet it could be set during any time period -- the sound is that timeless. (I found myself taken back to the early 1970's and Hubert's Danceland in Riviera, TX, site of many a senior party.) Overall, Together's ambience is a welcome counterpart to the fearful specter of a loveless world. Dylan even offers a touch of humor in the bluesy "My Wife's Home Town": "I just wanna say that hell’s my wife’s home town."

From the beginning to end of Together Through Life, it's easy to imagine bodega patrons slow dancing to the ballads and shimmying to the blues. Don't forget to dance, Dylan implies, and remember that it takes two...

Also Recommended: Antje Duvekot, The Near Demise Of The High Wire Dancer. It's been over two years since the last Patty Griffin album, and this one will more than suffice while we wait. Duvekot not only sings like Griffin, she brings similar touches of whimsy ("Dublin Boys") and insight and melodic sensibility (just about everything else) to her songwriting...Steve Earle, Townes. A welcome return to form after 2007's Washington Square Serenade, Earle's interpretations of Townes Van Zandt are sensitive without being precious, appreciative without being reverent. Van Zandt was an often enigmatic performer of his own work, and Earle strives successfully to educe the meaning in the songs through his gruff vocals and the album's spare but potent production. In fact, while Earle's songwriting may be in eclipse, the artistic success of Townes and Joan Baez's Day After Tomorrow indicate that he has found a new voice as a producer...

Pssst...Spring for the Deluxe Edition of Together Through Life. It includes the "Friends and Neighbors" episode of Dylan's satellite radio show. His musical knowledge is wonderfully far flung and his taste is impeccable...

Bob Dylan has long had an admiration and fascination with Shakespeare. Compare the chorus of "This Wheel's On Fire" --
This wheel's on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode
-- with the passage in King Lear where the mad king is reunited with Cordelia:
Thou art a soul in bliss; but I am bound
Upon a wheel of fire, that mine own tears
Do scald like moulten lead.
The wheel of fire is a torture device that -- as metaphor in the hands of Shakespeare and Dylan -- has the potential to consume generations. While Dylan's wheel rolls down the road indiscriminately, Lear's is one of his own making that eventually annihilates both him and Cordelia. Dylan's attraction to the metaphor is obvious, especially in the context of The Basement Tapes, that brilliant surreal exploration of nihilism different that anything else Dylan has recorded...

Over at the New Orleans Ladder, Editilla lambastes the Army Corps Of Engineering's PR firm...


John Hayes said...

Great reviews-- since you're a fan of Steve Earle & know about Townes Van Zandt I assume you know the hoary old story about Earle comparing Dylan & Townes (it involves standing on Dylan's coffee table) & Townes' even funnier response having to do with Dylan's bodyguards.

K. said...

Thanks, and I haven't heard that one. Do tell!

John Hayes said...

Hi K:

It goes like this: Steve Earle said Townes Van Zandt was “the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Van Zandt’s response reportedly was, “I've met Bob Dylan and his bodyguards, and I don't think Steve could get anywhere near his coffee table.”