Sunday, May 03, 2009

Dylan Ups The Ante, Again

With each new Bob Dylan release since 1997’s remarkable Time Out of Mind, the stakes have gotten increasingly higher. Opening up each subsequent record, one had to wonder to themselves - just how long will Dylan’s late career renaissance continue? Will he eventually come crashing down to earth, as he did in the late 1970s? And when those subsequent releases – 2001’s Love and Theft and Modern Times, released in 2006 – were masterpieces at or near the level of Time Out of Mind, it had reached a point where one could almost be forgiven for hoping that Dylan would quit while he was ahead.

But quitting while he was ahead has never been in Bob Dylan’s nature. And after a week of living with Together Through Life, there’s little doubt in my mind that the album belongs in the same rarified air as the three classics which immediately preceded it. In feel and scope, it’s much different – this is one hard-boiled record, one that could easily serve as the soundtrack for a James Ellroy novel. The tone is set from the very first notes of the first song on the album, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” When David Hidalgo’s accordion glides its way into the tune, you can imagine Bucky Bleichert in “The Black Dahlia,” making his way through a mysterious and dangerous Tijuana, in search of his partner Lee Blanchard. Nothing is as it seems, except for the possibility that death could be around every corner.

The album was recorded by members of Dylan’s touring band – George Recile on drums, Tony Garnier on bass, and Donny Herron on a variety of instruments – joined by two well-known guests, the aforementioned Hidalgo (Los Lobos) and Mike Campbell, the great long-time guitarist for Tom Petty. Hidalgo’s accordion drives the music on several tunes, most notably on the album’s closer, “It’s All Good.” This is the song that will be quoted most often, and for good reason – not since Bruce Springsteen’s “Reason to Believe” has a song more accurately depicted what people in this country are feeling at the moment – it’s funny, sardonic and tough as nails:

People in the country, People on the land.
Some of them so sick they can hardly stand.
Everybody would move away if they could
Its hard to believe but its all good.
Yeah... [chuckles]

Mike Campbell fits into the band as if he’s been a member his entire life, and serves as the perfect example of the absolute mastery Dylan has over his music right now. Because this sounds nothing like the Mike Campbell you hear on Tom Petty’s records. As Douglas Brinkley chronicles in an excellent article in the current edition of Rolling Stone, Dylan knows exactly what he is looking for with his current sound, and if that means he is the only person capable of playing the keyboard sound he wants, then so be it – behind the keyboard he will stand.

The sound of Together Through Life is a late-night sound, the sound of a band entirely sure of itself and ready to attack the songs, not just play them. Dylan’s vocals match the ferocity of the playing – he doesn’t sing so much as he growls, but it’s a voice with great power. Listen to him on “It’s All Good,” and compare that to how he sounded 20 years ago on “Everything is Broken” – there’s a weight to the voice now that just wasn’t there on the earlier tune.

There’s not a lot of lightness on the album, but one exception is the music of “If You Ever Go To Houston,” again featuring Hidalgo’s accordion. But then the words kick in, and you know that you’re back in familiar, dangerous territory:

If you ever go to Houston
Better walk right
Keep your hands in your pockets
And your gunbelt tight
You’ll be asking for trouble
If you’re looking for a fight
If you ever got to Houston
Boy, you better walk right

Real light-hearted, eh?

What this album proves, as if there should have been any doubt, is that one should never underestimate Bob Dylan. He’s going to plow new ground for as long as he stands on this Earth, and we should all be thankful that he still has the goods and the chops to pull it off.

No comments: