Review Summary: Is this the start of another barren decade?
Credit where credit is due - Bob Dylan generates incredible hype and attention for a man approaching his 50th year in the music business, and it's quite right that he should be applauded for both maintaining his original audience and ensnaring an entire generation of younger listeners. Like the under-20 Iron Maiden fans, who can listen to Dance of Death
and Brave New World
without the knowledge of how unbearably naff The X Factor
and Virtual XI
were when they came out, a whole wave of whipper-snappers can hear albums like Time out of Mind
and Modern Times
and never know how bad the '80s and early '90s really were.
But with that comes the necessary acknowledgment - no matter how long his career will last, or how skyscrapingly high his best work is, Dylan isn't infallible. That much, at least, was clear from Modern Times
, an album that sounded great at first but has lost much of its sheen. Dylan's priority on that album - and to a lesser extent, on each record since Time Out of Mind
- was to try and create something timeless by drawing inspiration from music that only somebody as old as he is would remember. Nice concept, but in doing that, Modern Times
actually found itself in the midst of a wave of nostalgia that was felt across almost every genre of music, and as such, it dated itself very specifically and quite badly. Together Through Life
has the same problem, and in fact it's probably moved up a notch, as the impossibly old-fashioned, accordion-led "If You Ever Go to Houston" shows most clearly. People who buy the deluxe edition will even find a bonus disc with an episode of his radio show included; the artists on here include such cutting-edge names as Little Walter, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Howlin' Wolf, and Hank Williams. Carole King and T Bone Burnett sound young in such company.
Yet, the problem lies deeper than that - and shockingly, it lies in the fact that Bob Dylan has managed to repeat his greatest mistake ever. Look closely at the album's credits - one track credits Willie Dixon as a co-writer, only one track is written entirely by Dylan, and the rest are collaborations with Robert Hunter. Yes, that's Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. Yes, that's the same Grateful Dead who teamed up with Bob Dylan in 1989 and released an album widely acknowledged as one of the worst ever. In fairness, this is not an entirely shocking piece of news - Hunter has co-written with Dylan before, and let's not forget that Modern Times
swiped lyrics and entire verses from all sorts of places - and it's not as if this album is anywhere near as bad as Dylan & The Dead
. Yet the collaborative nature takes its toll. This has the weakest Dylan lyrics on any record in recent memory, and you'd arguably have to go as far back as Empire Burlesque
to find an album that bears his name, but not much of his most obvious talent.
Even if none of this bothers you, though, the fact remains that Together Through Life
suffers from the worst songwriting on any Dylan album since 1997. There isn't a single lyric on here that even grabs your attention, let alone stays with you, and largely thanks to the shift of focus towards slightly faster, bluesier material, there isn't anything as dark and insidious as "Ain't Talking" or as humbly beautiful as "When The Deal Goes Down". There's not anything that quite captures the loose, fun bar-room vibe of "The Levee's Gonna Break" either, and that's the territory the album seems to aiming for. There probably aren't any tracks here you'd actually describe as bad, in fairness, but you'd struggle to find anything in here which you could describe as even being among Dylan's best recent work - it's all oddly muted, seemingly on autopilot for great swathes of its length. The electric stop-time blues of "Jolene", and "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" revert back to popular music's oldest formula, and although the latter sports a pretty nice melody, you can guess every chord change before it happens. It's obviously an unfair comparison, but "Subterranean Homesick Blues" used exactly the same ideas and 45 years on, still doesn't feel like this. Similarly, the aforementioned "If You Ever Go To Houston" kicks off with one accordion swell and despite the things going on around it (listen out for the pedal steel guitar), it never breaks away from it. "Forgetful Heart" is about as interesting as it gets - it's the one moment where Dylan takes the blues into territory that makes sense in a post-9/11 world, offering something darker and more spooked.
It's a shame that the album fails to hit, and in some ways, it's also a shame that it's not terrible, either. Ultimately, I could have written this review without even hearing this record, and no matter what you think of Dylan, one thing he should never be is predictable. Yet that's exactly what this is - with one listen to Modern Times
three months ago, and just a few minutes to consider the influences he used there and how he could or would possibly move forward, most people could have mapped this album out. The two things you can say in this album's defense is that it's not as reliant on cheeky bits of theft as Modern Times
was, and that Dylan's voice sounds much stronger on this sort of material than it tended to on that record. In every other respect, however, it's a disappointment, although not an unexpected one. The question remains, then: how does Dylan pull it back from here? An '80s-style rut could be looming, and he might not have long enough left to revive it again. Let's hope his next album is stronger than this, and that he doesn't end his career by sliding into mediocrity. Fingers crossed.