Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

39. Together Through Life (2009)

Dylan's 33rd studio album came about after a request from filmmaker Olivier Dahan for songs to soundtrack his new movie My Own Love Song.  Bob roped in former collaborator and Grateful Dead lyricist Rob Hunter to give him a hand with the words, and between them they came up with nine tracks, plus a tenth written by Dylan on his own.

I have to say that after the previous three albums, Together Through Life came as something of a disappointment to me.  In its favour, the songs are generally shorter than those on Time Out Of Mind, "Love And Theft" and Modern Times (the longest song clocks in at 5:53), but compared to all of these, TTL is less interesting both musically and lyrically.

Bob continues his 21st century tendency to be tangled up in the blues, but this time there's a more exotic edge.  Three of the musicians from his touring band are joined by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar and mandolin, and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on accordion and guitar.  The sound is essentially a bluesy bar band with a Tex-Mex flavour, sometimes with a romantic Cajun atmosphere.  Multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron contributes to the spicy mix by adding trumpet to his armoury, but sadly the album lacks standout songs and catchy tunes.  Subject matter is mainly love and lust, with a smattering of old man's melancholy.  There seems to be a lot less "borrowing" of others' words, which may have pleased some, but the lyrics are poorer for it.

Opener Beyond Here Lies Nothing gets things off to a decent start, its swampy blues rock recalling 'Black Magic Woman', Bob gruffly proclaiming "Well I love you pretty baby"and Herron's trumpet jostling with Campbell's lead guitar for top billing. Unfortunately the sequencing means that this initial energy is immediately squandered by it being followed up with Life Is Hard, a beautifully wistful but slooooow lament on lost love.  Dylan sings each syllable carefully and deliberately (struggling with the high notes), accompanied by trilling mandolin and sleepy Hawaiian steel.  It's a very pleasant song, but really belongs at the end of the first side at the earliest.

My Wife's Home Town is next, and it was at this point on my first listen that exasperation set in, firstly due to the placing of another excruciatingly slow song so early on, and secondly because of the lyrics, of which the expression "lame-ass" would be a charitable description.  I enjoy Dylan's sandpaper voice, but the music is sparse, dull and sounds bored with itself.  The tune is clearly that of 'I Just Wanna Make Love To You', and writer Willie Dixon is given credit in the sleevenotes, perhaps due to the litigious nature of his descendants, not to mention previous criticism of Bob's appropriation of material.

Hidalgo takes centre stage on the accordion-led If You Ever Go To Houston, which has a much fuller sound thanks to the combination of pedal steel, organ (played by Dylan) and mandolin.  It also provides a welcome increase in pace after the last two draggers, although the accordion riff becomes wearing long before the song fades out after nearly six minutes.  Much better is Forgetful Heart, which begins in a shambling manner with a sour, Neil Young-ish guitar chord and shimmering percussion.  The accordion takes more of a back seat, embedded in the dense mix of fuzzy guitar, organ and violin that's almost Lanois-esque but not as soupy.  Despite the slight melody it's the best song yet on TTL, and shares a darkness with Time Out Of Mind.

The band really gel on Jolene, Dylan's mucoid ruckle underpinned by a solid rhythm section, his own organ-playing and a fabulous Bluesbreakers riff from Campbell.  The lyrics are perfunctory, but just right for this lusty blues number.  This Dream Of You is my favourite track on TTL.  It was written by Bob alone (yet bears more than a passing resemblance to Save The Last Dance For Me), and I must say that this shows in the lyrics, which are the most interesting on the album. The subject matter is again of a love lost, and has a romantic Parisian street caf√© feel, with violin and accordion swooning and swaying together like tipsy lovers.

Shake Shake Mama is another sleazy blues song, with lyrics as simple and earthy as Jolene.  It's followed by I Feel A Change Comin' On, a meditation on relationships late in life that's plastered in accordion and shot through with Dylan's lusty snarl.  It's a great-sounding song with an almost funky rhythm and licks aplenty from Campbell, but there's not much of a tune to be found.  The best line is "Some people they tell me, I've got the blood of the land in my voice", to which I can't help adding "Yes, and the phlegm of the world in your throat".  Final track It's All Good marks a brief return to social commentary, with a vague list of the world's ills summed up with the sarcastic title line.  It's a well-played, groovesome blues, but not the best song to end with, recalling for me his feeble socially conscious material from the 1980s.

Together Through Life was recorded with the whole band live in the studio, Dylan's favourite way of doing things and one that suits this kind of material.  Like much of his recent work it's fairly reliant on standard blues templates, which coupled with the more straightforward lyrics co-written with Hunter makes for an amiable but somewhat generic sound.  It does represent a dip in quality after the last few records, but comparison is probably unfair, as it was a quickly-evolving project instigated by a soundtrack request, with no songs or even ideas stashed away in the bank to make use of.  Taken on its own terms, it's not a great album by any stretch of the imagination (no matter what some breathless critics would have had you believe on its release), with no real musical hooks or memorable lines, and of the latter, certainly none that have the power to move. I'm sure I'll listen to it again, but it won't be among the first to be pulled out of the BobBox.

I'm expecting no shortage of tunes in the next album, as it consists of many well known and much-loved songs.  Yes - up next, and just in time for the festive season is Christmas In The Heart!  As a fan of Christmas music both good and wonderfully dreadful I've been looking forward to this for some time, and have had to be very strict with myself since December the 1st in not adding it to my seasonal listening.

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All prices correct on 08/12/2015

1 comment:

  1. Never heard this record..your beautifully written review however doesn't make me wish to change this fact...