New Dylan album reviewed

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Bob Dylan

Together Through Life

Despite leaning heavily on the signature instrument for the bratwurst-and-polka crowd, Bob Dylan’s new album, Together Through Life, manages to wring rhythm and soul from an overgrown squeezebox.

David Hidalgo of Los Lobos plays accordion on each of the album’s 10 tracks and much of the backing band’s beat reminds us of the best work by Hidalgo’s group. Hidalgo adds great Flaco Jiminez touches to Dylan’s new songs, and at times Together Through Life sounds as if we’ve wandered into a Ry Cooder album.

But it’s Bob Dylan, of course. That blown-speaker growl of his is unmistakable, and although this is an album of purported love songs — what else would the title Together Through Life suggest? — nothing is ever so simple or straightforward in Dylan’s world. And, for that matter, when was the last time he wrote a conventional love song?

Case in point: “My Wife’s Home Town.” A stock-in-trade tuneslinger from Tin Pan Alley might come up with a rhapsodic reverie about visiting the place where his beloved grew up. But not Dylan. The refrain on this tune is “Hell is my wife’s home town.” And then . . . and then . . . a couple of times during the song, Bob . . .  cackles.  In his 47-year recording career, has he ever cackled before?

In short, Bob’s having fun here.

“My Wife’s Home Town” offers clues to the Rosetta stone for the album: Chess Studios, 1954. Except for the accordion, the tune’s instrumental track sounds identical to that of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” Chess seems to be the blueprint for many of the songs — Chess mixed with some Doug Sahm/Augie Meyer Tex-Mex bordertown blues.

By my count, Dylan has made 15 masterpieces, the most recent being Love and Theft in 2001. Modern Times (2006) was a great, jumping record but a bit shy of his highest standard. It contains some excellent songs — “When the Deal Goes Down,” “Nettie Moore,” “Ain’t Talkin’,” among them — but did not quite achieve the epic and apocalyptic stature of Love and Theft.

Together Through Life is much like Modern Times: superbly performed (by Bob’s usual band, plus Hidalgo), with songwriter Dylan in great form (often in collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter), and with the sort of drive and funk that can even get a rhythmically challenged Midwesterner dancing.

It all started with a request from director Olivier Dahan (“La Vie En Rose”), who asked Dylan for a song for his new movie, My Only Love Song. Dylan came up with “Life is Hard,” by my estimation the weakest song on the album. But that inspired him to write nine other meditations on love. Despite the presence of the instrument on which Frankie Yankovic’s career is based, there is much dance funk on Together Through Life.

Angry Young Bob will always exist as an icon of popular culture. But Dylan’s most interesting and satisfying artistic period may be the last 10-12 years, when he has shown how a great artist can age majestically. This album again reminds us Dylan is an amalgamation of all of his influences. Together Through Life, like all of his recent albums, is both a paean to and a tour of the spectacle of American music.

Together Through Life is available as a single disc or as a three-disc limited edition: Disc Two is a an hour-long episode of Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour from XM Radio and Disc Three is a DVD of an interview between Dylan and  Roy Silver.

—William McKeen

Here's a taste of the new album, "I Feel a Change Comin' On," No video, though, just a still of the album cover.

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