Together Through Life
We have reached a crucial point in the history of modern music. As the icons of the rock and folk movements ascend into their twilight years, what direction will these long and storied careers take? Think about it. We have been able to trace the careers of jazz and blues greats such as Duke Ellington and John Lee Hooker, but what rock legends have lived long enough for us to find out what becomes of their music in a later, final stage? As artists such as Leonard Cohen push into their seventies, musicians with legacies that feature numerous left turns and a refusal to settle into the folkie or bard boxes, we are experiencing a cultural phenomenon akin to other media. Imagine being able to view the final stages of great painters such as Pablo Picasso as they occur.
No surviving musician is as legendary as Bob Dylan and with Together Through Life, he has cemented the ’00s as the years he returned his music to its very roots. True, many people will consider his folk songs of the early ’60s to be the progenitor for that Dylan sound, but if you look more closely at the genesis of folk music, and the songs of Dylan’s “Pre-Dylan” days, he’s covering songs by the likes of Jesse Fuller and Bessie Smith. Sure, people love to pinpoint Woody Guthrie’s topical songs as the influence on the young Dylan, but look below the hood and there are also influences running from the great traveling bluesmen to Tin Pan Alley. Dylan’s ability to synthesize American music, true music from an era of troubadours and minstrels where the sounds float down from Appalachia or explode from speakeasies and chain gangs, has always been his gift. It’s just now, as he settles into old age, that he is able to let those many strains of pure American music speak through his work.
Though not as startling as the new sound of Love and Theft, Together Through Life completes a trilogy of excellent albums and caps a successful decade for an artist many presumed was washed-up by the ’80s. Credit the one-two covers punch of As Good As I’ve Been to You and World Gone Wrong that sent the flailing artist inward, but every album since that exploration has been downright great. Certainly, Together Through Life does little to build upon the sounds birthed on Theft and that flowed through Modern Times, but it is undeniable that its batch of tunes are excellent in their own right. Just like the excellent late period Muddy Waters return-to-form-trilogy of Hard Again, I’m Ready and King Bee, this older Dylan is full of gritty determination to rock hard and go out on top.
The album kicks off with the samba-inflected “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” “I love you, pretty baby/ You’re the only love I’ve ever known/ Just as long as you stay with me/ The whole world is my throne,” Dylan sings in his froggy, time-ravaged voice, the voice of a man who has seen death, the shifting landscape and the erosion of the American Dream. Times are tough in this country. Though the optimism of the newest administration lingers, there are portends of another Depression, another epoch in need of Dust Bowl Ballads. Starvation, plague and destruction are just around the corner but Dylan distills these worries onto the shoulders of a wayward lover on “Life is Hard.” “Since we’ve been out of touch/ I haven’t felt that much/ From day to barren day/ My heart stays locked away.” It is a melancholy tune, rife with regretful sadness and the refusal to say a final goodbye. Memory of failed love has always punctuated Dylan’s work – look no further than Desire’s “Sara” for a perfect example – but he seems to believe that along with the finality of all other aspects of life, love is a transient, non-permanent feeling. It must be difficult to see love as the antidote to this cruel life, yet still believe even that will leave you in the end.
Dylan’s preoccupation with the American Southwest pops up on two of Together’s tracks. The Mexican swing of “If You Ever Go to Houston” is another tale of gunslingers. It’s as if Dylan is trying to connect with the different strains of American hobo by locale: “Find the barrooms I got lost in/ And send my memories home/ Put my tears in a bottle/ Screw the top on tight.” This mariachi fascination crops up later on “This Dream of You.” Though not the out-and-out Mexican dream of “Romance in Durango,” this tale of regret features the soulful combination of David Hidalgo’s accordion and Mike Campbell’s mandolin. Perhaps Dylan’s work with Sam Peckinpah injected this love of the romantic life on the border, but “This Dream of You” is one of the most touching songs of Dylan’s career. As he sings, “There’s a moment when all things become new again/ But that moment might have come and gone,” it sounds as if this song has been in our consciousness for decades.
The album closes with “I Feel a Change Coming On” and “It’s All Good.” While “Change” is another great sigh as Dylan eyes the past in the form of a gentle country tune, “It’s All Good” really sums up the Dylan of this decade. It is a sarcastic romp that could have come straight from Bringing It All Back Home and that envisions the end of humanity packed with lying politicians and putrefying food. “Brick by brick, they tear you down/ A teacup of water is enough to drown,” Dylan sneers over this bluesy stomp. The world is going to shit, but hey, it’s all good. The vitriol that drips from his voice as he intones “it’s all good” is priceless.
As this decade comes to a close, Dylan, like us, is taking his time to examine not only the last 10 years, but the entire history of rock ‘n’ roll. While Dylan’s voice has opened up to become not only an intrinsic part of musical history, he has also adapted the role of living curator of a time and place almost erased by those who care more about the trappings of stardom than the roots of music. He is not trying to prove anything. But, as our world slides towards the brink of chaos, maybe Dylan does have the answer. Maybe there is something about older values and the power of love that can cure things. On the other hand, maybe we just don’t care and it’s okay to be placated by things that don’t have the authenticity of the true stuff of love. Maybe everything is okay. It’s all good, right?