Bob Dylan’s “Together Through Life”

We will not be playing Together Through Life quite as often as we play Love and Theft, which you know was a masterpiece.  The logical question then is, is Together Through Life a masterpiece, too?  Not a chance, but it continues the old man’s winning streak, with coiled Chicago blues, and pretty American waltzes, played by the wizened bandmaster and his ace combo.

“Jolene” reminds us, if reminding we needed, that drummer George Recife really is the incarnation of Fred Bellows, the greatest drummer of Chess Records’ classic period.  We know from the Bill Flanagan interview that Dylan was emulating that sound — Chess Records, Sun Records, all those old analog studios.  In an interview a few years back, Dylan was incredulous about a producer miking each string on his guitar; he’d rather record like a bluegrass outfit, with one mike and the singer leaning forward to be heard.  And of course, doing it the old-fashioned way makes it sound gorgeous.  (It helps to have, in addition to his touring band, Mike Campbell rounding out the guitar section, and David Hidalgo on accordian.)

Too much of the early reviews have focused on the lyrics, not the music.  The music’s what counts at this stage, on a certain level.  Some years ago, Keith Richards tried justifying the Stones’ endless big tours by comparing them to the old bluesmen, Muddy and John Lee, who kept playing into their twilight years.  But the Stones tried to sound like young men, they didn’t age naturally, and the falsity of the stance is just one of the reasons why, as Dylan keeps producing masterworks, the Stones sound kind of ridiculous.  Those old blues men went out on tours, in some case earning the biggest paychecks of their lives long after they were too old to really enjoy it. They played their greatest hits, for the most part.  But Dylan keeps creating; he may be the first man in rock’n’roll history to hit his creative peak as a septuagenarian.  (Thus the touring with his contemporary, Willie Nelson.) So what if Dylan needs a little hamburger helper to serve up this dish — Robert Hunter flavoring the lyrics, rewriting classics like “I Just Want To Make Love To You” to deliver the deadpan hilarious “My Wife’s Hometown,” even reworking Willie Dixon’s “Who’s Been Talking” as the Chipotle-flavored “Beyond Here Lies Nothing.”  He sounds like a man his age — no, not just a man, a master, a Living National Treasure, in the Japanese sense.  Only a master could write a song like “Forgetful Heart.”

There aren’t a lot of analogies to the incredible late work Dylan has produced since Oh Mercy kicked off his mature efflorescence 20 years ago.  Well, maybe this one works:  “Picasso’s final works were a mixture of styles, his means of expression in constant flux until the end of his life. Devoting his full energies to his work, Picasso became more daring, his works more colorful and expressive.”  That 47 years on from his first record Dylan can record an album that is this funny, this pretty, this rocking, is more than a celebratory achievement.  He’s a freak of nature, witness and participant to history, canny enough to have cooked up another one while the snows were deep.  We should enjoy it while we can.

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