By: Ron Hart
"My band plays a different type of music than anybody else," Bob Dylan recently proclaimed in an excellent interview with Douglas Brinkley for the cover story of the May 14, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. "I don't think you'll hear what I do ever again."
This is the statement that journalist Douglas Wolk attributed to the justification of the paltry 5.4 rating Pitchfork gave Together Through Life (released April 28 on Columbia), the 33rd album from the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman, to which Wolk suggests that "[Dylan] has never heard a moderately decent blues band in a bar."
Both Wolk and Pitchfork have had their fair shares of way-off-the-mark misses in their respective tenures. However, for Wolk to cast off Dylan as "Random Blues Journeyman #843" and passive-aggressively accuse him of plagiarizing David Wright's translation of The Canterbury Tales, not to mention Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Little Richard and Chuck Berry is not only lazy music journalism, but an insult to a 68-year-old man who has earned the right to pay homage to whomever he wants in whatever context he chooses.
However, critics slamming Dylan are nothing new. Bob has had a full garden's worth of tomatoes tossed at him throughout his career. Sometimes it was justified, such as his uninspired mid-80s slump with such fantastically awful studio bombs as 1985's hyper-slick Empire Burlesque (although the raw studio sessions that are available on the black market for this album are fabulous), 1986's maudlin Knocked Out Loaded and 1988's utterly phoned-in Down In The Groove. Other times, the pans were way off the mark, most notably in reference to Dylan's 1970 double-LP Self Portrait, which inspired critic Greil Marcus to start his infamous Rolling Stone review with, "What is this shit?" Yet, regardless of the critical hate (one book even hailed it as the third worst rock album of all-time), the album quickly went gold in the U.S., peaked at No. 4 on the American charts, No. 1 on the British charts and has been historically reassessed as Dylan's misunderstood lost masterpiece, receiving notoriety amongst such acts as Phish, The Grateful Dead and jazz pianist Jamie Saft, and getting a dose of indie cool credibility after Wes Anderson featured the track "Wigwam" in his 2001 film The Royal Tennenbaums. Dylan's late-70s "Born Again" phase also received its fair share of ink-riddled razzes as well, in spite of the fact that the trio of albums from that era - 1979's Slow Train Coming, 1980's Saved and 1981's Shot of Love - have arguably grown better with age, thus forcing many of the critics who threw horns at Dylan's short-lived Christianity trip to reconfigure their original sentiments.
Yet, since the release of his 1989 comeback masterpiece, Oh Mercy!, with the sole exception of his 1990 all-star collaborative bomb Under The Red Sky, Dylan has experienced a creative renaissance the likes of which few artists of his generation have experienced. In the recent years leading up to Together Through Life we have seen seven proper Dylan albums come down the pike and not a dud in the bunch, from his pair of understated, traditional folk song mining gems in 1992's Good As I Been To You and 1993's World Gone Wrong to his 1997 gothic blues masterpiece Time Out Of Mind to the blue moon Western balladry of 2001's "Love and Theft" (considered by many to be Dylan's single greatest album since Blood On The Tracks) to 2006's Chess Records-evoking Modern Times. And this is not including the artist's outstanding archival project The Bootleg Series, now in its eighth volume and counting, nor his 1995 MTV Unplugged album. Given all the momentum he has built up in his near-flawless output of these last two decades, one encounters some critics wringing their hands in anticipation of a creative failure to take the piss out of Dylan.
Well, for those who are forcing themselves to believe that Together Through Life is his Down In The Groove of the 00's, you better guess again. While this new one certainly does not match the majesty of Oh Mercy! , Time Out Of Mind or "Love and Theft" , Together comes off more on par with the likes of Dylan's mid-level classics like 1974's Planet Waves, 1978's Street Legal or 1983's Infidels. It's an album you might not immediately recognize as a Dylan masterstroke but one that will certainly grow into your rotation in the same way those aforementioned understated gems.
Staying in line with the fabric of his recent series of recordings, all of which appear to offer something akin to "Bob Dylan's Guide to the American Landscape," Together Through Life focuses on the sounds and imagery of the border towns of southernmost Texas. However, those who might be expecting something akin to the music Dylan created for his soundtrack to Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid better look elsewhere. The music here, produced by Dylan under his Jack Frost moniker, is pure Tex-Mex in the vein of Freddy Fender and longtime Dylan compadre Doug Sahm, played with a loose, ramshackle authenticity by a well-put-together group consisting of Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker guitar maverick Mike Campbell, Los Lobos' David Hildago on accordion and guitar, Nashville musician Donny Herron (BR5-49) on steel guitar, banjo, mandolin and trumpet and his longtime touring rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile.
Sure, the blues is prevalent across these ten songs but not in the "moderately decent blues band" vein Wolk suggests in his review. And yeah, "My Wife's Home Town" is a spin on the Muddy Waters arrangement of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You." But so what? If you held every act accountable for jacking ol' Willie for his grooves, you'd have a list as tall as the Williams Tower in Houston, a city Dylan fondly recalls atop Hildago's Flaco Jimenez-evoking accordion wheezes on "If You Ever Go To Houston." "It's All Good," a sly, wry spin through America on the brink of its final curtain call, where Zimm utilizes the clichéd Trustafarian adage the song is named after as venomously as a hearty "fuck you", is also a great blues romp a la John Lee Hooker, soaked in tequila and Texas Tea. And "Shake Shake Mama" even takes a direct quote from "Friendless and Blue," a 1938 song from blues great Lonnie Johnson: "I'm motherless / I'm fatherless / Almost friendless, too." However, the excellence with which the Together Through Life band helps Dylan deliver these blues is anything but typical. Meanwhile on the lyrical tip, Bob collaborated with former Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on all but one track here ("The Dream of You"), and manages to capture the road-weary feelings of aging with unwavering grace and candor, particularly on "Life is Hard," a weepy slow waltz past lost loves as the pain and weariness of senior citizenship grows more prevalent with each step.
Together Through Life might not be Dylan's best, but it certainly isn't worthy of a spot with his worst either. Just give it some time and it will surely grown on you, just like Self Portrait and Slow Train Coming have for many people. Dylan's exactly right when he says that you'll never hear the kind of music he does ever again. Because regardless of what style or era of music he chooses to pull from with each album, be it Sahm-ian Tex-Mex, Chess Records boogie, Delta-fied folk-blues, electric R&B, born again gospel rock or even abstract hip-hop, ultimately it all sounds like nobody else but Bob Dylan. The man is in a class all of his own. And, at 68 he has earned the right to play whatever he wants whenever he wants.
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