At this stage, the Bob Dylan test is simple: listen to a new record a few times and before you make your judgment, pretend it’s the work of a largely unknown old circuit rider named Robby Zimmerman playing bars and beer halls with his traveling blues band in the upper midwest.
By the high cultural standards generally ascribed to America’s generational poet, Dylan’s unexpected new album Together Through Life is light and occasionally pleasing, an interesting fourth record in a blues-based “comeback” that begin with his Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind in 1997. To Dylanologists and obsessive critics, it’ll never make the canon.
But to anyone scuffling through the the hard rain of springtime, 2009, the new Dylan record is a low and pleasing rumble of traditional blues and front parlor numbers, latched to the back-end of a cross country semi hauling one hell of a groove across the American wasteland.
If this were the work of an unknown veteran, in other words, the critics would be patting themselves on the back for their tremendous taste and ability to spot a new talent.
About that groove: the guitar work of Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and the accordion of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo weave a border cafe filigree of melody and rhythm, while Dylan’s touring band – bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George Recile, and Donnie Herron on banjo, steel guitar and mando – lay down a rich bed of sound that’s part vintage Chess sides and part nouveau Texas swing.
Dylan’s voice has never been scruffier, a lonely warble grooved with years aural scars. But in other ways, his singing hasn’t been this good in a decade. It’s crisply enunciated. And the singer sells the songs completely, even though most of the lines turn downward these days at the end, the antithesis of the characteristic upward snarl of “how does it feel?”
This 67-year-old Dylan knows how it feels and the songs – mostly co-written with lyricist Robert Hunter – tell small and personal stories. Dark tales with dark humor and lost dreams: Dylan knows it’s late in his game (and perhaps ours as well). “I feel a change comin’ on and the fourth part of the day’s already gone,” he sings over happy upbeat blues on the record’s best song. Then he adds: “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.”
That he does. Most critics thought Dylan had finished his late-career blue trilogy (which also included Love and Theft from 2001 and Modern Times in 2006), but as Dylan sings in Jolene on the new disk: “I keep my hands in my pocket, I’m moving along, people think they know, but they’re all wrong.”