Bob Dylan, Serving Us a ‘Life’ Sentence
New CD Crackles With Melancholy, Doom
By Joe Heim
April 28, 2009
Bob Dylan is sounding old, folks. Tuckered out. Whipped.
And it's not the frog croak voice or the aged whine or any tumbling tumbleweed tunes that make the troubadour sound ancient on much of his outstanding new album, "Together Through Life." It's more that a world-weariness, wrought by years of experience and observation, has finally swallowed him whole.
"I don't know what's wrong or right/I just know I need strength to fight/Strength to fight that world outside," Dylan croons on "Life Is Hard," a song so beleaguered and bereaved it should only be listened to with a tissue at the ready. The track is remarkable, too, for the clarity of the singing, as if Dylan wants no syllable of sadness to pass undetected or undigested.
On "Forgetful Heart" the 67-year-old burnishes his telltale melancholy with regret. Singing to a long-gone love, he growls: "Forgetful heart, we loved with all the love that life can give/What can I say/Without you it's so hard to live."
And the gloom doesn't let up there. Hope -- even hope that has been realized -- is called into question on "I Feel a Change Comin' On":
"Well now what's the use in dreaming?/You got better things to do/Dreams never did work for me anyway/Even when they did come true."
Although the lyrical gold rush of Dylan's earlier years has largely faded, eager prospectors still pan his songs for nuggets of wisdom. And yet any Dylan fan who obsesses over his lyrics should regard this new album with caution as all the songs but one were co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. (Dylan rarely collaborates but he has worked with Hunter before -- on his 1988 album "Down in the Groove.")
The slow-rolling "This Dream of You" -- the one song Dylan wrote himself -- is the high point of his low mood on this 10-song collection and the sort of steeped-in-sorrow song whose great salvation is that its beauty is its own salve.
"There's a moment when all old things become new again," he sings, "But that moment might have come and gone."
The song's chorus, "All I have and all I know/Is this dream of you/Which keeps me living on," feels less like a sentiment to cling to than one that will leave you weeping.
There are songs with get-up-and-go on this new CD but even most of them simply set doleful sentiment to a rollicking beat. The album kicks off with the swampy blues of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin' " and the title alone is a clue to where the rest of the songs are headed. Even the romping "Shake Shake Mama" has the singer lamenting, "I'm motherless, fatherless, almost friendless, too."
But it is the ferocious closing song, "It's All Good," that is Dylan at his withering best as he takes the numbingly banal phrase and turns it on its head:
"Coldblooded killer stalking the town/Cop cars blinkin', something bad going down/Buildings are crumbling in the neighborhood/but it's nothing to worry about, cause it's all good."
It's a switchblade sendoff that signals the fight hasn't been knocked out of the singer altogether. And yet long after those last pugnacious notes sound, it is lines from "Life Is Hard," that sad second song, that will haunt listeners. They're lines that are hard to listen to without worrying about the messenger: "The sun is sinking low/I guess it's time to go/I feel a chilly breeze/in place of memories."
There's no reason to suspect that Dylan, who has recorded 33 studio albums over his 47-year career, is planning on calling it quits any time soon. And yet if the aptly titled "Together Through Life" turns out to be the last album that America's most important song poet records, its mix of inscrutability, flashed teeth, existential angst, deep sorrow, deadpan humor and dead-on takedowns would make it a perfectly satisfactory coda to a remarkable half-century of musicmaking.