When it comes time to crack the plastic on a new Bob Dylan album every couple of years or so, the thing I always find myself immediately missing is the lyric sheet. Despite being one of musics greatest lyricists ever, Dylan rarely, if ever, includes them.
The fact is — especially at his ripe old age — Bob Dylan has no business being able to turn a great phrase the way he still so effortlessly does. Yet, Dylan's lyrics continue to amaze on his 46th album, Together Through Life, due out this Tuesday from his long-standing label, Columbia.
"I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I'm reading James Joyce. Some people, they tell me I've got the blood of the land in my voice," Dylan sings on "I Feel A Change Comin' On," one of this album's many standout tracks.
On "My Wife's Home Town" (which happens to be Hell), Dylan croaks out lines like "she can make things bad, she can make things worse, she got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse," with all of the world weariness of a broken down old horse thirsting for one last drop of water to drink. Yet on "If You Ever Go To Houston," he admits that "something always keeps me coming back for more, I know these feelings, I've been here before."
So there is no shortage of lyrical fodder here to keep Dylanologists busy pouring over every line until, well, until the next Dylan album.
Still, Together Through Life doesn't feel anything like the masterpiece that was 2006's Modern Times. There's nothing here with the hell hounds on my trail sort of desperation of "Thunder On The Mountain" or "Ain't Talkin'" — although the best songs on this record, like "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and "I Feel A Change Comin' On," come awful close.
On the former, Dylan sings "Beyond here lies nothing, nothing we can call our own," behind a blusey, Tex-Mex flavored arrangement rich in crackling guitars and accordion. On the latter, while Dylan sounds optimistic, the song is measured by caution as evidenced in lines like "everybody got all the flowers, I ain't got one single rose."
In a lot of ways, Together Through Life actually feels like something of a retreat from Modern Times, Love & Theft, and Time Out Of Mind — the so-called "trilogy" of recent albums that many believe marked Dylan's creative resurgence. The bluesy, equal parts Tom Waits and Muddy Waters gravelly vocals that marked those albums are still very much evidenced here. It's just been smoothed around the edges a bit in order to match the more relaxed vibe of the music.
In fact, on songs like the wistful ballad "Life Is Hard," Dylan even rediscovers his upper-register, sounding closer to the countrified sweetness of his Nashville period, than the smokey sounding husk of his more recent work — providing a perfect match for the sweet, dripping-with-mandolins arrangement of the song.
While we are on the subject of Dylan's vocals, the song "Forgetful Heart" is a textbook example of why Dylan is such a great singer. Yes, you heard me right here. Bob Dylan is a great vocalist.
On this song, Dylan shows himself to be a master of the art of vocal phrasing. When he sings the words "Forgetful heart, like a walking shadow in my brain, all night long I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain" before concluding "the door has closed for evermore, if indeed there ever was a door," he bites off each syllable as though his life depended on it.
Fortunately, Dylan lightens up a bit on the very next track. "Jolene" is the sort of juke-joint rock and roll song you might find Chuck Berry doing if he ever crossed paths with somebody like Doug Sahm. Dylan's band — which for this record includes Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and Los Lobos' David Hildago — locks into a great little groove here.
Hildago's accordion work is also quite prominent on tracks like "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" and "This Dream Of You." On the former it complements the bluesy guitars perfectly, while on the latter it sounds like something that could have just as easily come from the soundtrack to a movie placed somewhere in the border towns of Italy.
"Shake Shake Mama" comes the closest of anything here to the sound of Modern Times, sounding almost like an alternate, slightly slower version of that record's take on "Rollin' And Tumblin'." Yet even here, Dylan's sandpaper-raw vocals take on just that much of a smoother edge — once again, matching the overall more relaxed, far less doomy feel of this record. Maybe Dylan's breathing easier these days with Obama in the oval office, and his predecessor presumably herding sheep back at the ranch in Texas.
Speaking of Obama, its hard to miss the sentiment of "I Feel A Change Comin' On," even if Dylan still concedes that "the fourth part of the day is already gone," in the second part of the chorus. On the following track, "It's All Good," Dylan reduces that most tired of modern day catchphrases to its true meaning when he equates lines where "brick by brick they tear you down, and a teacup of water, is enough to drown" to the ultimate realization that "it's all good."
If Together Through Life is not quite the masterpiece that Modern Times was, it's still a very good record — easily worthy of a four-star rating. In the same way that the apocalyptic feel of Modern Times matched its time, so does this one match the present. Even now, no one turns a phrase quite the same way as Bob Dylan.