The release of a new Dylan album is always met with excitement here in my house. I have been a rather obsessive fan of the Bard from Hibbing since eighth grade when I discovered “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The way the young, croaky yet clear-throated Dylan sang those repetitive phrases (“it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a haaaaaard…”) drew me in and hasn’t let me go.
With the release of the latest tome in his oeuvre, Together Through Life, Bob Dylan continues to carve out a legacy with what feels like to me the fourth part of a trilogy that began with 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Together Through Life is a record tacked on at the end of a career. Or at least, that’s what I thought, until I really began to listen.
When “Love and Theft” was released (auspiciously on September 11, 2001) most critics considered it a sequel to Time Out of Mind. Likewise, Modern Times was heralded as number three in that line upon its release in 2006. This morning, however, I listened to all four records in succession, and one thing became immediately apparent: Time Out of Mind is a true masterpiece that should be set apart from these other latter-day Dylan works.
Time Out of Mind was a Daniel Lanois production, and it shows. These songs sound wholly original and purely Dylan. Even when using standard forms, the production is so original, and the lyrical content so rich, that any measure of the derivative is utterly hidden. The listener can do nothing but hone in on Dylan’s aged voice as he sings 11 tracks of desolation for just shy of 73 minutes. There is no doubt in my mind that this album is worthy of the title “Best Since Blood” and maybe even “Best.”
Over nearly 50 years of recording, Dylan’s sidemen have changed, and so have his producers. His three most recent albums have been produced by “Jack Frost,” Dylan’s not-so-clever nom de plume.
“Love and Theft”, the first of the Jack Frost productions, was released to much acclaim in 2001 and deservedly so. It is a worthy successor, a fine follow-up to Time Out of Mind. Here, original sounding arrangements (I’m looking mostly at “Floater” and “Sugar Baby”) were mixed with more standard sounding blues (“Cry A While” which is a Mississippi Sheiks rip-off) and swing (“Summer Days”). Dylan’s lyrics are, on the whole, more playful, more reminiscent of his earlier days in some ways. In large part, his words are stolen images from other authors and works — a quilt of Dylan’s steel-trap brain that was brilliantly pieced together. While “Love and Theft” shows some of the musical originality of Time Out of Mind, it still has, on the whole, a derivative sound. We can chalk that up to its title, right?
Of the four records in question, 2006’s Modern Times is the least interesting. Outside of some positively brilliant moments (“Workingman’s Blues #2”, “Nettie Moore” and “Ain’t Talkin'”) there is little on this album that really captures my heart musically. The three tracks just mentioned have that originality in them that, like the majority of Time Out of Mind and much of “Love and Theft”, forces the listener to focus in on the pathos that drips from Dylan’s ravaged vocals. The register achieved in these songs allows his vocals to shine in spite of their diminishing skills. The rest of the album, for the most part, is a bit “throw-away” to me. Musically, the tracks are far less interesting than its predecessors. Even more of the standard blues and rock forms have overtly infiltrated the sound.
So, for the first three records of this dozen year swing, we see a Dylan who, as he has become more and more in control of the material, has moved from wholly original sounding productions to increasingly standard sounding forms. If you attempted to graph this, I think you would find this to be the trend.
Now we come to the newest sound, Together Through Life. To my ears this sounds like a tribute to Chicago blues with some accordion thrown on top (especially “Jolene”). All-in-all it’s a bizarre sound to my ear. That’s a good thing. Some of these arrangements are positively wonderful.
“Life Is Hard”, for example, stands out in my mind. This slow piece, laced with mandolin, lopes along, almost dragging the listener through 60+ years of confusion, experience, and wisdom. Dylan’s voice strains to hit the harder notes, but we hang right there with him, knowing that the rhythm will eventually pull him back into a more comfortable register. Dylan has taken elements of the blues and put them into this French border cafe sound — hitting these wailing, bluesy notes but bringing us back to resolution. Painfully dissonant and agonizingly beautiful. The most brilliant moment on the track, however, is Dylan’s hum prior to his last repetition of the refrain. It’s thoughtful; it serves a purpose. Like life, this listen is hard but rewarding.
The stripped down blues of “My Wife’s Hometown” with its little accordion hits accenting each line is also an enjoyable listen. Dylan’s wry wit, of course, shines through on the refrain: “I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s hometown.” The rambling accordion solo is the joyful ghost of the lost organ swells from the New York version of “Idiot Wind” — now the singer is looking back not with a scowl, but with a smirk. Dylan even punctuates the final moments of the song with a few chuckles as if to say: “What can ya do?”
The only track on this record that is patently not good is “If You Ever Go To Houston.” When I originally saw the track list, I was excited about this song because I’m a Houstonian. However, like “Spirit On the Water” and “Beyond the Horizon” from Modern Times, I just get bored and even annoyed as I listen to it. I’d rather skip to the next track “Forgetful Heart” which has some nice moments.
So, how do these four albums come together? As I mentioned earlier, Time Out of Mind stands out and stands alone. The other three records feel like they are related insofar as they rely on various musical genres to bring them home. The bookend volumes are the better of three, while Modern Times feels comparatively weak. If not for Dylan’s ever deteriorating voice, you could probably package those three together and sell them as a triple album.
The question for me is this: Where does he go from here? Does Dylan continue to experiment with the musical forms that he knows and loves? I think so long as Jack Frost continues to get production credit, that’s probably the case. This Chicago blues plus border cafe sound will be supplanted by something else. Perhaps a return to country like Nashville Skyline or some sort of jazzy thing reminiscent of “If Dogs Run Free” (that’s my vote).
If Jack Frost is tossed aside in favor of Lanois or some other modern production demigod (Lillywhite?) then I think we would be in for an exciting ride. There is no doubt in my mind that Dylan is still producing original lyrics (always his strong suit, wouldn’t you say?) that rival any current songwriter. So, Bob, you concentrate on words and music and let someone else handle the production!
For those who are curious, here are my ratings for Dylan’s last four studio albums:
|Time Out of Mind (1997)||10/10|
|“Love and Theft” (2001)||8/10|
|Modern Times (2006)||6/10|
|Together Through Life (2009)||7/10|
All-in-all, I’d say that’s some pretty impressive work for a nearly 70 year old has-been. Wouldn’t you?
Give me your thoughts on these records. I’d love to read and comment on them.