If you’ve been to a Bob Dylan concert during the past decade or so, you might have been struck by the introduction broadcast over the speaker system prior to the man’s entrance. It starts out straightforward enough, by asking the audience to “please welcome the poet laureate of rock n’ roll,” but the ensuing summary of Dylan’s career bears an unsettling resemblance to a eulogy: “The guy who forced folk into bed with rock…who disappeared into a haze of substance abuse…who was written off in the 1980s…who reemerged with some of his strongest material in the 1990s.” Matters aren’t made easier by the fact that Dylan, with his crinkly, corpselike skin and croaky grumblings, both looks and sounds like a ghost.
Dylan may not inspire the same kind of grandfatherly critical and cultural patience routinely given to past-their-prime pop artifacts like Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, but there continues to be an aura of respectful confusion regarding what he is all about these days. No one dares to declare him irrelevant, but then no one is able to say what exactly makes him relevant, besides the fact that he is still alive and working. Thwarting earnest interpretation, he has filled the present decade with enough oddball artistic footnotes to give the most committed PhD student in Dylanology a nervous breakdown. Todd Haynes’s flaccid anti-biopic I’m Not There seemed to mimic the pseudo-tribute contained in those concert introductions, and Scorsese’s treatment in No Direction Home was plenty illuminating, but then it dropped the curtain just when the story was getting interesting, at the moment in 1967 when a mysterious motorcycle “accident” transformed Dylan from counterculture messiah to Emersonian recluse. Acknowledging Dylan’s perhaps-limited involvement on those projects, we turn to the overwrought post-apocalyptic farce Masked and Anonymous, which he co-wrote and starred in, and his appearance in a Victoria’s Secret commercial, stalking Adrian Lima across a chilly Venice ballroom, and end up beyond bafflement.
As much as the distractions distract, the music itself fails to make things any more comprehensible. Subject a friend who proclaims to not “get” Dylan’s voice to one of his recent albums and wait for the ensuing gasps of displeasure. He used to shoehorn his poetry by way of pop-song structures and lilting, country-rock arrangements. Now it’s all Chess-era Chicago blues and repetitive, driving sagas shrieked with the desperation of a wrongly convicted chain ganger. After the gloomy, cavernous Time Out of Mind that marked his comeback, Love & Theft and Modern Times were obvious in the way they fit Dylan’s far-flung narratives and rambling, existential diatribes into antique patterns of western swing and barrelhouse blues. Those albums thundered both with blistering guitar solos and witty quotables. Together Through Life continues the guitar solos, with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and the Heartbreakers’s Mike Campbell helping to make up Dylan’s best backing band in decades, but where are the quotables?
English undergrads trying to impress their professors by reciting lines from Together will embarrass themselves because, on its surface, the album is Dylan’s worst lyrically since, well, ever. One has to assume that the well has not just run dry and that the album’s flavorless diction has a purpose. It’s as if Dylan has cut off the fat that was his tendency to euphemize until there was nothing left but the raw bone of human emotion. Indeed, some of the prosaic lines here hit with the bluntness of truth that “A ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face” or “Well, I ride on a mailtrain, baby, can’t buy a thrill” cannot approach. Sometimes the titles are enough—see the jaunty, embittered resignation of “It’s All Good” or the funky doomsday of “Beyond Here Lies Nothing.” Turning as he did on Love & Theft and Modern Times to familiar blues backbeats (“Forgetful Heart,” for example, does a standout job of echoing “The Thrill Is Gone”), Dylan leaves it to his unique vocals and a smoking set of sidemen to get his point across.
There is one lyrical passage on the album that is positively Dylanesque, which would not sound out of place on Blonde on Blonde and yet perhaps gives us a clue about what he is currently after. It comes on “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” a sturdy midtempo ballad that could be a subtle Obama ode were it not tinged with the regretful refrain, “I feel a change comin’ on/And the last part of the day is already gone.” The notable verse comes halfway through the song, and it contains the album’s only references to actual historical or cultural figures, unusual for someone who famously placed “Shakespeare in the alley” and imagined falling in love with Bessie Smith: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me I’ve got to the blood of the land in my voice.” That Dylan draws inspiration from a whiskey-soaked Texas songwriter, author of country classics like “Tramp on Your Street” and “Old Chunk of Coal,” and the most influential and difficult writer of the past hundred years should not be taken lightly. But the succeeding boast could be even more important: Beyond his poetry, perhaps contra his poetry, Dylan is bleeding the American experience through the sound of his coarse, wounded howl.
One consolation Together offers is the fact these songs are going to absolutely kill when played live. It’s a frequent mistake for critics and fans to overthink Dylan’s albums, when he has continually tried to explain to us that he sees his records as little more than blueprints for live performances. Contrary to popular opinion, Dylan is not an immovable object, a monument to a finished career. He’s a living, breathing legend with a trunkful of songs that are evolving by the day. And he just announced a summer tour of baseball parks across Middle America. So, more important than buying this album, go order your concert tickets.