This has been a year in which two of rock’s greatest icons have released new studio albums far ahead of their usual schedule. Bruce Springsteen released Working on a Dream in January, a mere 15 months after Magic was released in October, 2007. To show you why this is so unusual, it took Springsteen more than five years to follow 2002’s The Rising with Magic, and going back over his career, that is much closer to the norm.
Now we have a brand new studio album from Bob Dylan, Together Through Life, and it makes an appearance a mere 32 months after Dylan’s last studio album, 2006’s Modern Times. The gap between Modern Times and its predecessor, Love and Theft, was very nearly five years, and again, going back over Dylan’s career, at least in recent years, that is much closer to the average.
Not to be ungrateful, because I’m very happy when either of these artists releases a new album, but what exactly is going on here? What’s driving these men to speed up their recorded output so dramatically? The answer, it seems to me, is pretty simple — time. Bruce Springsteen turns 60 this year, and although it appears that he is in good health, in the last couple of years he has had to endure the deaths of a longtime collaborator, E Street Band keyboard player Danny Federici, and Terry McGovern, who was Bruce’s friend and assistant for years.
Bob Dylan will be 68 years-old on May 24 (Happy Birthday, Bob!), and he also must be facing his mortality after witnessing the demise of many old friends and colleagues, and having his own health scare in 1997 when he was hospitalized with histoplasmosis, a potentially life-threatening fungal infection. It’s apparent that both of these artists feel that they have more to say, and they both realize that none of us is given to know how much time we have left. A bit morbid perhaps, but perfectly understandable.
The good news is that both men do have more to say. Springsteen proved it in January with what I feel is his best album in years, and now Dylan is back with Together Through Life, another in a continuing series of great albums. The bard’s 46th release finds him once again deeply immersed in the blues, and having a great time being there.
No one can be blamed for looking for messages from Bob Dylan. For a lot of people he’s someone akin to a prophet, although Dylan himself dismisses such talk. And yet many of his albums have been filled with signs and symbols. We’ve become accustomed to looking for the deeper meanings in his songs. I’m happy to say that there’s no need for such digging into the new album. This is Bob Dylan having a great time. He recorded the album with his very strong road band, and produced it himself under his Jack Frost pseudonym. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos leavens the blues with some tasteful accordion playing throughout.
If you really must look for a message, it would appear that our old friend Bob has found love in the autumn of his life. Even the opening track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” which is very dark musically, is an ode to commitment in an increasingly cold world. Several other songs would seem to confirm this theory, including the mariachi-flavored “This Dream of You,” and the devotional ballad “I Feel A Change Comin’ On.” It’s no coincidence (are there ever coincidences with Dylan?) that the album ends with a song titled “It’s All Good.”
Of course, this being a Bob Dylan album, there has to be some mystery. Sure enough, blended in with all this happiness are a couple of songs, the despairing “Life is Hard,” and the vengeful “Forgetful Heart,” which temper the good feelings that are present elsewhere. Together Through Life is mostly just a good time. For my money, “My Wife’s Home Town” is one of the funniest songs that Dylan has ever written. The late blues great Willie Dixon shares a music credit on the song.Set against a traditional blues rhythm, Dylan recounts the ways that this woman has done him wrong, in the most sardonic terms. As you might imagine from the title, “Shake Shake Mama” is good time rocker, with some very nice guitar work from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, who is also present throughout the album.
Much has been made of the fact that Dylan collaborated with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on all but one of the songs here. If that’s the case, more power to him. They make a terrific team. It’s all about what it takes to make good music, not who did what.
Finally, note must be made of Dylan’s voice. The vocals on Together Through Life are the best I’ve heard on a Dylan album in quite some time. It seems that his voice has settled into this nice raspy, deep groove.
For anyone who thought that it might be time to bury Bob Dylan, put down your shovel. The great poet is very much alive, and on top of his game.