Picking Up Steam: Together Through Life

bob_dylan_-_together_through_lifeI can feel the energy here twisting through the guitar twang and accordion thrums, horn blurts and organ cries of the opening track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” That is, Dylan’s croak informs us, “Nothing but the moon and stars.” But the next track, “Life Is Hard,” is so insubstantial in its slow procession it feels delicate on the ears, hardly registering at all. “My Wife’s Home Town” (Hell, by the way) loosely folds its verses around that intriguing refrain. But then, “If You Ever Go To Houston” features Dylan’s growling, twanging vocals, paired with that crowing accordion and a slide guitar, at their late-career best. “If you ever go to Austin / Fort Worth or San Anton’,” Dylan reminisces, the band loping forward like those outlaws from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, “Find the barrooms I got lost in / And send my memories home.”

This last weekend I found myself in a Fenway bar, hanging out with my grad-school classmates and colleagues. They’re mostly in their twenties (the birthday girl was turning 23), and sometimes they get me to participate in the things folks in their early twenties do: stay out late, chug beer, walk long distances home. Used to be no problem, I’d bounce back with vigor. Not so much anymore.

I only had four beers! (Okay–and a whiskey-sour nightcap). But for godsakes, it took me two days and a hair-of-the-dog to start feeling like myself again. At the bar, though, one of the poets said he’d met Bob Dylan–said, through cryptic nod-and-winks that he knew Bob Dylan, before swearing me to secrecy. I have no reason to doubt him, really, especially because when I expressed concern about Bob coming down on me for copyright issues (none of Dylan’s studio recordings appear on YouTube, after all) this guy told me, “Bob? Shit, Bob doesn’t care.”

I like this image of Bob: a mellow old rock-and-roller who wouldn’t waste a moment concerning himself with rights and records and legacies. I’ve painted him at times as a miserly anti-critic, but you know, when a man’s lived the vast majority of his life in the spotlight, fielding questions and inferences from media types extrapolating theories and inferences (what Kooper called “folly and conjecture”), a certain distrust of critics might be understandable.

But not me, right? My project’s different from the rest, and not just because of my (ahem) unassailable ear and analysis. But because I’d like to think Bob would like me if he met me, even if he thought, like Kooper, that my “thinking is all wrong.”

I’ve said it before. They’re Bob’s songs, but they’re my songs–our songs–too.

From this kinder perspective I attempt to hear “Forgetful Heart” as more than an atmospheric ballad in a minor key; “Jolene” as more than masculine bluster (“Baby I am the king, and you are the queen / … People think they know but they all wrong”); “This Dream of You” as an earnest rendition of Mexicana folk. Because there’s some good stuff here: tunes that evince a master still plying his craft.

Several masters, in fact. Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead shares songwriting credits on all but one track. Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers riffs guitar. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos pumps that alluring accordion. And really, this album ends in a flourish. “Shake Shake Mama” pops with groove-inducing funk behind a AAB rhyme scheme. “I’m motherless, fatherless, almost friendless too / It’s Friday morning on Franklin Avenue.” The penultimate track, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” rings with that Obama-era optimism so common back in 2008 while its strong major progression reinforces that sunniness: “We’ve got so much in common / We strive for the same old ends / I just can’t wait for us to become friends.” That bright-sidedness transitions into the final track, “It’s All Good.” Here, Dylan shrugs off those corrupt institutions he railed against so vehemently with a throw-back phrase and delivery.

Do I get this album? It’s an exploration of American musical forms from yet another angle. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Totally, because the Dylan persona here–raspy and cryptic, playful and good-natured–leans on his decades of wit and confidence. Do I like it? With this cast, these songs, how could I not?