New Dylan doesn’t disappoint

By Evan Minsker

It seems almost mandatory for me to run through a history of Bob Dylan before I review his latest release, Together Through Life. It’s as if I need to prove to the world that I understand the full background of Martin Luther King Jr. before I review one of his speeches.

Dylan is an icon-nay, a legend. And sure, I’ve listened to nearly every album and quite a few bootlegs, as well. And yeah, I’ve read some books on him. He’s like John Lennon, Paul McCartney or Miles Davis-when you talk about Dylan, it’s impossible to just talk about the music. But I’m not here to give the abridged history of Dylan or prove that I’m familiar with it.

I don’t think it’s fair to objectively review a new Dylan album and stack it up to his work in the ’60s, his new work and everything in between. There will always be the opinion that once he plugged in, he sold out. There will also be the opinion that once he plugged in, he was amazing. I don’t feel as though I should have to moderate or acknowledge that now-ancient debate.

No, I’m going to review Bob Dylan’s latest album cold-my intention is to pay attention to the music and the lyrics and ignore the ocean of work that he’s left behind. I realize it’s hard to objectively ignore the elephant in the room, but I’m going to give it the old college try.

As the album’s title would suggest, Together Through Life mostly deals with love, heartbreak and emotions.  If anything illustrates this, it’s Dylan’s dusty old voice.

The sound on the album is also defined by Dylan’s sidemen. Throughout the record,  there’s plenty of awesome New Orleans accordion from David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. There’s also some clean,  orderly blues guitar from Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers.

It’s interesting how dramatic the album is. The single from the album, “Beyond Here Lies Nothing,” sounds like it could be used in a dance sequence in a mafia film. That’s especially true considering the big, sustained ending.

But if the sound in that song wasn’t extravagant enough, try “Life is Hard.” In a charming-but-strained voice, Dylan sings that “life is hard without you near me.” It’s the type of song that would be played in an Italian restaurant.

One of the best songs on the album is “Shake Shake Mama.” The sound is really reminiscent of the hayday of The Band. It’s got a funky beat, but it still has layers of rock ‘n’ roll and country. Excellent storytelling, once again, but it’s accented with him singing, “Shake, shake mama/Shake it ’til the break of day.” I do cringe, however, when I think of the dancing moms when he plays this one in concert. Yuck.

Every song on the album is totally polished and overproduced-something I’ve never been a big fan of. It’s probably because I liken the sound to the slick guitar solos by Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton. It’s clear, however, that these songs were written with the need for a sound that doesn’t distract from the emotion in Dylan’s voice to the forefront.  Plus, the band is extremely tight, and it never bothered me.

The last song on the album is “It’s All Good,” a song full of tongue-in-cheek optimism. Even though politicians are telling lies, wives are leaving their husbands and killers are on the loose, “it’s all good.” How cheeky of you, Dylan.

Frankly, I’m a huge sucker for whom our generation can bluntly refer to as “old Dylan.” I’ve heard complaints about his voice and about the way he’s turned his back on his sound. I love the way his voice sounds and, honestly, I don’t mind how emotional his writing is on this one.

I’m glad he’s producing the music he feels like recording instead of putting on the dark sunglasses and trying to reinvent his Beat poet persona. He’s following his own musical route, and Together Through Life is a great testament to that.

It may not be revolutionary, it probably won’t be remembered as his best work and, sure, it’s very clear throughout that he’s using a lot of old session men. But  is still a refreshing listen. The album is full of emotion and American music. It doesn’t take a historian to tell you that when Bob Dylan makes great American music, it’s a fantastic thing.

Also, Dylan’s notion of how to write a love song makes Bruce Springsteen’s “Queen of the Supermarket” look even worse than it already is. Sorry, Boss.