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Music Review: Bob Dylan – Together Through Life

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The first rumors of a distant portent in Northern sky were the ‘exclusive’ previews that started appearing in the ‘serious’ music press, the ‘chosen ones’ were allowed a ‘behind closed doors’ listen. Thus they spoke in hushed reverence: they spoke of primeval blues, of the spirit of ancient Chess records, of the dust and romance of Mexican Cantinas, of ravishing dark skinned women with roses in their teeth and tequila in their glass. The rumor mill fed the multitude, and some among them, impatient for the word, tapped at their keyboards like priapic woodpeckers on crystal meth: fearless and true, they blogged their prophecies deep into the night. And lo, it came to pass, sorry. And lo, it came to Amazon, and across the land it travelled, and it was hailed as both divine and sublime… it was the new Bob Dylan album.

Initially the omens were good, the Independent’s great music critic Andy Gill quoted these lyrics: "I’ve got the blood of the lambs in my voice" in his review. This bodes well it was thought; perhaps this is ‘old testament’ Bob. Some wondered aloud: “Bob, these lambs of which you speak; are they lambs of sacrifice or lambs of silence?” Oh! They are the lambs of typographical error. I see: it’s the ‘blood of the land’ that you’ve got in your voice. And with that revelation the only interesting couplet on the record melted in to thin air and this insubstantial pageant was revealed.

Dylan fans of a nervous disposition look away now. Together Through Life is the worst Bob Dylan record of this century, and it's in the all time top three worst Bob Dylan albums of all time. (I knew you’d ask, and without going all Hi Fidelity anorak, the other two are Down In the Groove and Dylan) As no thunderbolt has yet struck, I’ll try to justify my attempt to burst the bubble of bullshit that hangs over this album. Firstly let me confirm membership to the ‘Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter and cultural icon on the planet ‘ club. However, great as I think Bob Dylan is, I cannot believe what I have seen written about this truly mundane album. It seems that Bob has moved to a place that not only puts him above any criticism, but where he is now revered as some sort of cultural totem, and to throw harsh criticism at him is to risk the total collapse of the entire cultural edifice.

Whatever critical position you take to discuss the record, it is hard to see an answer as to: how or why it has generated such glowing reviews. It seems, it is only the ‘why’ it has generated those reviews, that has a discernible answer. Bob has (rightfully) reached the highest cultural plateau we have, the ultimate modern renaissance icon: performing artist, recording artist, author, DJ, producer and artist. An Oscar, Grammies, doctorates abound in recognition of his genius: so how is a humble rock critic qualified to tell the worshipful audience that the beloved genius has made his most uninspired album in decades, and spoil the happy ending this narrative is meant to have.

Well all apologies, but this narrative has only one analogue: The Emperor’s New Clothes. There is little point to digging over the landfill of reviews already written, except to pose one question that just might encapsulate them all. Uncut, the UK music monthly sees fit to decorate Together Through Life with 5 stars, its highest commendation. This surely presents the question: then how might it judge the exquisite emotive transcendence of Blood on The Tracks, or the mordant glory of Time out of Mind? Are there special stars that I don’t know about, or are you really going to tell me this throwaway, lame dog of an album is a defining icon of popular culture, invested with the same magnitude of inventive genius as the other two: as a certain Harry once said: ‘don’t piss up my back and tell me its raining’

The first listening, the impression of this album, is that the optimistic promise of the reviews were not misplaced, the promised Chess influence is evident as a guitar snarls agreeably in one speaker, while in the other a mariachi trumpet plays the most interesting instrumental motif on the entire album. Bob growls and grumbles and at a push you can believe that is indeed the blood of the land apparent in that there voice. It’s all good you think, till the lyrics startle your thinking ears to hear a couplet so profoundly obvious, constructed with the sort of crass trite rhyming that Dylan himself did much to extinguish decades earlier.

A couplet that betrays an authorial thought that must run something like: ’it’s just a three minute song, any old rubbish will do’. And that couplet is ‘down every street there’s a window, And every windows made of glass’. Well technical advances not withstanding, what else do they make windows from? Is it just the singular window of the first line? Is it a metaphor for a window to the soul? Oh, if only. This is the man who used to find ways to write rhymes like skull and Capitol, this is arguably America’s greatest living poet, not some garage punk making a record with his mates. Yet here we have an album with the lyrical sophistication of a ‘speak and spell’ book: its like Van Gough throwing away his chromium yellow and replacing it with custard.

Every writer is allowed the odd tired line, I’m sure this review will be full of them, and indeed it will have no shortage of irate Dylan fans pointing out its manifold shortcomings. However if "Beyond Here Lies Nothing" is disappointment, then the next track is so bereft of melodic or lyrical interest that incredulity it was thought fit for public consumption is the only emotion that it is capable of arousing. The dreariest blues plod possible, just frankly torturous to endure. Things improve little for "My Wife’s Home Town," guess where that it is, yes it is hell and we have a Bob Dylan song based around some ancient misogynistic joke.

Part of the vocabulary of the blues you say, well possibly, but not based around a ‘bad–wife’ joke so lame Rodney Dangerfield wouldn’t have bothered to use it. The pace remains remorselessly moribund and even the much-heralded accordion can do little to ward off the growing feeling that one is suddenly suffering from chronic narcolepsy.

Things improve slightly for "If You Ever Go To Houston," though to call the vamp that backs the lyric simplistic would be to over-complicate it, inoffensive but ultimately pointless, and moreover a track that should have no place on a Bob Dylan album. By the time we get to "Jolene" for the first time in my life I’m really hoping it’s ‘Bob does Dolly’ time, and I am not surprised to be disappointed this time around. There is just nothing here to praise; it is arguably the most depressing album I have ever heard.

The lyrical highlight to most reviewers is the couplet from "I Feel A change Coming On," ‘I’m a listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce’. However, this actually highlights exactly what is wrong with the entire record, once upon a time Bob Dylan had T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound fighting in the captain’s tower, he juxtaposed the prosaic and the profound. James Joyce should be on a trapeze with Prometheus under a hunters moon; Billy Joe Shaver should be shooting craps with Hunter S. Thompson while Dante keeps the score. What they should not be doing is what is obvious: being listened to, and being read, anybody can have them do that. The whole point of Bob Dylan is he never took the easy road, not every record was great, but they are (almost) all the kind of interesting that used to demand a bottle of single malt and a dark night of the soul, so as you could get acquainted with the wonders of a new Bob Dylan record. Bob knew it, just as we did to: ‘No one else could play that tune, you know it was up to me’

Not any more, anyone else could write these tunes, (though the concept of a tune as something having some discernable, even memorable, melodic character in nowhere to be found on this album) or indeed play them. Joe Ely can summon up the spirit of Tex-Mex troubadours to much greater effect. James Mcmurtry can identify the state of the union with more insight and eloquence than that in the reductive irony of "It's All Good." With Bob as writer, and producer, perhaps there is nobody in the chain of command that can tell him no, consequentially if the critics roll over and hysterically applaud every last cough and splutter any semblance of objectivity to his art is gone forever, and soon what’s good is bad, and what’s bad is good, and we’ll all be on the bottom. Together Through Life is an album devoid of tension, dynamics, and excitement; it is insipid, uninspired and deeply unsatisfying, just so damned slight as to not matter: were it not a Bob Dylan record. As Bob himself said ‘But there's nothing, really nothing to turn off’ and that is an absolute tragedy.

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  • http://your-yard-is-ephemeral.blogspot.com/ Duane Barlow

    Great review, thank you!

  • michael

    Bad Dylan records have a habit of sounding a whole lot better years later in the context of what else was around at the time…. I think your comments whilst valid maybe say more about you than Dylan

  • Bill

    You’re right. “Together through life” is a disaster. It really stinks. And I,too, am a lifer when it comes to my appreciation for Mr. Dylan and his contributions to pop music. He’s #1.

  • Thad Williamson

    maybe just a little harsh, an over-reaction to what I agree have been inexplicably positive reviews. Unlike Down in the Groove, however, this is listenable. (And “Dylan” I don’t think was so bad at all if you understood it for what it was, a bunch of outtakes thrown together by the record company to fulfill a contract. I think “Knocked Out Loaded” is a better choice for the worst 3 Dylan records.)

    I do take issue with the put-down of “It’s All Good.” No it’s not a great song but it’s not bad and is fairly entertaining.

    Given that the lyrics are generally uninspiring and uninteresting (Robert Hunter being the thread connecting this with DITG), what’s more disappointing is that the music–not just the melody, but the arrangement–is just so dull. The accordion on “if you ever go to houston” plays the same thing over and over the whole song, no variation, plus it’s mixed to loud and drowns out the vocal.

    I have hope that some of these songs will sound okay in concert. It has happened before with Dylan. Plus, the Theme Time Radio Hour and the video interview on the deluxe package are both pretty sweet.

    Overall though, a disappointment.

  • Nigel Simons

    An unbalanced love of Brownsville Girl saved it from that top 3, but a good point, and I nearly put Knocked Out in there in spite of BG.

    All the comments to this piece have been fair and measured, which is not what you would expect for a negative Dylan review. I just found it interesting that non of the many rabid Dylan fans I know thought it as good as promised by the reviews, and were mostly disappointed.

    I just hope no new Dylan fans buy this number one album with the awesome reviews and wonder what all the fuss is bout, and miss out on the greatest body of work in popular music.

    I’d also argue that any artist has highs and lows in their work, and one gives a perspective on the other. Even the bard wrote a few plays that are not that well thought of, which leads to Timeon adds to the genius of Lear type arguments.

    Its when the lows are celebrated more than the highs that I start to get a bit worried that all perspective is lost.

    Now, how long to wait for the next one?

  • jay

    The man has seriously lost his mojo. Perhaps he should treat his wife better.

  • jonnyra

    I find the album quite good. You can trash it all you want…your choice. I have been a lifelong Dylan fan and while I would not rank with his greats (you know the list) to trash TTL like this is just childish. I listen, I groove and I listen again. And will keep doing that for a while me thinks.

  • michael

    Look , it’s not Highway 61 but it’s not that bad,in fact I don’t agree at all that it’s in his worst three (if there ever was a worst three) ….the guy’s 68 years old and he’s just scored a No 1 ….we’re not going to see the likes of him again and when everything’s tallied up 50 years from now everyone who made these derogatory comments are going to be doing their best to deny it…by the way my fav Dylan albums are jwh ,Street Legal and infidels…I know they’re not his best albums but theyre the ones I’d crawl across cut glass for

  • Garry

    I thought it must have been just my wife and I being out of synchronicity with the rest of the world, listening perhaps through “knowing” Dylan super-fan superior ears. I too am worried that Bob might believe the reviews and he will have no direction home for his next album