Darren Hirst examines the apocalyptic world of BOB DYLAN as expressed through his 'Together Through Life' album
The media and Bob Dylan have always had a strange relationship. There have always been times in his career, when in the eyes of the critics, he could do no wrong. Equally, there have been times, when in the eyes of the same writers, he could do no right. It also has to be said that the jobbing writers on most of the UK and US music journals have had a really difficult time understanding where Dylan's songwriting was going and what the mindset behind his work was at various times.
An interesting case in point was in 1981 when Dylan released 'Shot Of Love' which he has said he regards as being one of his strongest albums. He went to great lengths to produce a rock 'n' roll record with a live-in-the studio feel. He brought in the former Little Richard producer, Bumps Blackwell, to enhance the sound. He wrote songs from a broad palate of colours, making a varied record after the narrow focus of its predecessor 'Saved'. Ultimately, he was scathing of reviewers who approached the album as though it was a "Methodist record".
He seemed to echo this lack of regard for those critics who saw him as a one trick pony following the records he made about his new-found faith. In one line from "Brownsville Girl" recorded in 1986, he said: "We've got him cornered in the churchyard, I heard somebody shout." (Bob Dylan, "Brownsville Girl", 1986, from 'Knocked Out Loaded')
On 'Shot Of Love' there were songs that spoke of two very different Jewish characters. There was "Property Of Jesus" which spoke of a man who was misunderstood for following the self-proclaimed Jewish Messiah, Jesus. There was also "Lenny Bruce" which talked of a man who had a brief meeting with the Jewish comedian. Reviewers approached the album as though "Property Of Jesus" was the centrepiece of the record by which to interpret Dylan's thought. "Lenny Bruce", they said, was a delight but it was curiously out of place. The reverse seems to have been true. The passage of time shows that Bob has never played "Property Of Jesus" in his live shows, even during the "gospel" tours, whilst 28 years later, he is still returning to that Lenny Bruce song.
Fast forward to 2009, the critics have decided that Bob Dylan, once more, can do no wrong. With the reactions to his previous three studio sets: 'Time Out Of Mind', 'Love And Theft' and 'Modern Times', the momentum has been building. Every breath the great man takes is applauded and, from the critics' perspective, every song is a masterpiece. The ordinary listeners are beginning to latch onto this swing by the critics and, tired of the waves of enthusiasm, many are starting to allege that the Emperor Has No Clothes. Amazon's review section of his new set 'Together Through Life' has a number of one star reviews. Meanwhile, the journalists continue to throw caution to the wind and are already lining up the album for "CD Of The Year 2009" status. As usual, the truth probably lies somewhere between the two positions.
In Dylan's career there have been major albums and minor albums. Typically the major releases have come after he has re-gathered to consider his muse and develop a new direction - 'Highway 61 Revisited' in 1965, 'Blood On The Tracks' in 1974, perhaps 'Slow Train Coming' in 1979, certainly 'Time Out Of Mind' in 1997. The minor projects have tended to be albums of covers or songs that he has co-written with others or albums he has recorded when he is just running on empty. Major and minor, in my sentence, ought not to be necessarily equated with good and bad. In the second category, for example, they're not all bad records but they tend to creep out without a whole lot of conviction from the man himself. Let's see - 'Self Portrait' in 1970, 'Planet Waves' in 1973, 'Knocked Out Loaded' in 1986 (an album with a number of surprisingly good moments by the way), 'Down In The Groove' in 1988, 'Dylan And The Dead' in 1989.
On 'Self Portrait' it was mostly covers and sentimentality. On 'Planet Waves' and 'Dylan And The Dead' he was dominated by his collaborators, The Band and The Grateful Dead, respectively. On 'Knocked Out Loaded' he co-wrote with Sam Shepard, Carole Bayer-Sager and Tom Petty. On 'Down In The Groove' his songwriting partner was Robert Hunter.
Interestingly, one album where he co-wrote songs that the critics love is 'Desire' but Dylan is on record as saying that this is the album from his career that he feels furthest away from. So when we open the sleeve of his latest 'Together Through Life' and read that all but one of the songs here were co-written with Robert Hunter, it feels that the album should come with an "Approach with caution" warning. When Dylan needs someone else to help him get the songs out, it has not usually been a good sign. The newspapers, though, carry on regardless, hardly drawing breath, and print their rave reviews and the album is catapulted to number one on the charts in the UK (for two weeks) and in the US (for one week).
The genesis of 'Together Through Life' is an interesting one. Apparently, Bob Dylan was approached by French film director Oliver Dahan to write songs for his new film, a road movie. Dylan had liked Dahan's previous film about Edith Piaf and was impressed by his audacity - Dylan felt that Dahan expected a whole album's worth of songs - and agreed. Consequently, he wrote "Life Is Hard" for the film and then with Hunter's help kept going to produce a whole album. This sounds like a recipe for an album with some so-so songs and some standouts and I think in 'Together Through Life' this is what we have.
The album, like the film which inspired a little of its writing, takes us on a road trip. Most of the album's narrative is set in the US states which border Mexico: Texas, California, New Mexico. Los Angeles, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antone and Galveston are mentioned by name. But the writer also has a journey of the emotions and the spirit to make. He recently commented, saying about the album: "It's kind of a journey. . . a journey of self discovery. . . takes place in the American South." On the opening song, Dylan is confident that this world provides all that he needs: "You're the only love I've ever known/Just as long as you stay with me/The whole world is my throne/Beyond here lies nothin'/Nothin' we can call our own." (Bob Dylan, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'", 2009, from 'Together Through Life')
That is a confidence that is going to be broken and turned inside out as the album progresses. As the album moves along, the fracture of the relationship that inspired the confidence is dealt with. By the seventh track, Bob's confidence is in something that transcends this earth. The last track disparages all the cruelty and heartlessness of a world which was once the centre of his dreams.
That first track "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" sets the musical tone of the whole album. As the album is geographically set in the border towns so it is from there that the musical style arises. The accordion of David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), the guitar and mandolin of Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) and trumpet from Donny Herron are added to the soundscape of Dylan's touring band to create an atmospheric mix which rises from that soil. The back cover features a photo by Josef Koudelka which captures an image of the kind of café band that Dylan is trying to recreate. This song by the 68 year old Dylan recaptures a youthful enthusiasm and naivety which is centred in young love and optimism and is one of the high points of the album.
The second track, mournfully led by Campbell's mandolin, is the exact opposite in tone to the first. "I've lost the way and will," laments Mr Dylan as he stares at the ruins of broken love. "I walk the boulevard/Admitting life is hard/Without you near me." (Bob Dylan, "Life Is Hard", 2009)
The tone of the album is that all love must go this way. It would be hard to endure broken love even if it wasn't the human way to pin all our hopes on it. The ship which set sail in the first song seems to be wrecked and on the rocks. The creaking pain of Dylan's voice captures the flood of emotions exquisitely. The next two songs, "My Wife's Home Town" and "If You Ever Go To Houston", reflect on the precarious human position with a good deal of sardonic humour. "My Wife's Home Town" is based on an old melody ("I Just Wanna Make Love To You") from bluesman Willie Dixon's songbook. The home town in question is "Hell". The dangers of relationships which lay too much trust in women are writ large in Dylan's recent songwriting. In 1986, he married Carole Dennis, a singer from his backing group. Since that relationship ended in his second divorce, his touring band has been noticeably a male only affair. "I'm getting' up in the morning - I believe I'll dust my broom/Keeping away from the women/I'm givin' 'em lots of room." (Bob Dylan, "High Water", 2001, from 'Love And Theft')
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