Why is this not really a review of Bob Dylan’s new album, Together Through Life? Because I’ve listened to that album several times now and I cannot connect it to any of the things that I associate with Bob Dylan. It almost seems unfair to review Together Through Life because album reviews tend to compare the new stuff to the old stuff and, in Bob Dylan’s case, that’s a trap you’d chew your leg off to escape. Can you really imagine pitting Together Through Life against Highway 61 Revisited and comparing notes? It’d be a musical Tiananmen Square where Highway is the tank and Together is the lone dude bravely facing down said tank. But this time, everyone is kind of embarrassed by the lone dude and will be (only somewhat) secretly thrilled when he’s reduced to a gooey paste beneath the tracks (pun!) of the mighty tank (album).
Bob Dylan apparently won’t cop to it (this is rumor only, because I’m too lazy to read his book), but there was a time when he was not only capable of getting down to the real shit, he was the real shit. He didn’t have to cut right down to the bone because he lived there, carved his home out of the marrow, and used the shavings to build his songs. That’s how you become the voice of your generation (not by giving yourself the job, Kanye West). Blonde On Blonde, Blood On the Tracks, and Highway 61 Revisited are still killer albums, resonating as clearly with me today as they ever did with anyone who heard them when they were new. Those albums still shake people to the core because Dylan was so utterly on top of his game when he recorded them.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves, really laying it all out there for everyone to see (is that what Dylan used to do? Sometimes yes and sometimes no), we have to admit that the artist formerly known as Robert Zimmerman has fallen far from the top of his game and has not aged gracefully at all. I know Modern Times got good marks from the critics, but they were ignoring the fact that it was largely a cringe-inducing, corny affair. Love and Theft was pretty all right, but that was more than 10 years ago and still doesn’t hold a candle to his earlier work.
There is an art to aging gracefully, especially in rock ‘n’ roll. Tom Waits has mastered it, but he started early (about the time he realized that being a boozed-up lounge singer was a dead end). Waits turned his music inside out and when that wasn’t enough, he ground it in the dirt with his boot heel, mixed it with some other dust and blood, and sculpted an entirely new beast out of it. I’m not just saying this to plug my favorite musician – Waits and Dylan have a lot more in common than you might think. They’re both (at their best) unrivaled songwriter/poets with a unique view of the American experience and a (formerly, in Dylan’s case) unique way of presenting it. I’m not just talking about their supposedly “bad” voices either. But if we wanna talk voices, I’ll take Tom Waits or Bob Dylan over Josh Groban any day of the week – sure, Groban can hit all the pretty notes but his music doesn’t tell you a goddamn thing about life, love, or where to buy pornographic playing cards in Singapore. In other words, Josh Groban doesn’t tell you anything you need to know. On the other hand, if you listen carefully to Tom Waits, he will tell you everything you need to know. I feel the same way about Blood on the Tracks, which makes it really hard to listen to Together Through Life. And, in case you couldn’t tell, it makes it hard to stay on task when merely discussing this album.
The whole album consists of songs I’ll classify as Clean White Blues* (not a compliment), which might almost – almost – be bearable if the lyrics sounded like they came from Bob Dylan. But I refuse to believe that the same guy who wrote “Desolation Row” penned the godawful “It’s All Good” that closes Together Through Life. There’s just no way. Dylan’s legacy is so solid right now, he could literally do anything he wanted. I’m not saying he has to starting aping Tom Waits, but he could take a page from the Waits playbook and try to push his sound beyond its limits. Instead, Dylan has crafted what might as well be a Jimmy Buffet record with fewer laughs (it hurt me more to write that, Bob Dylan, than it will hurt you to never read it). The instrumentation is almost always the same (Clean White Blues standards – soft drums, maybe an accordion and/or piano, and clean – always clean – electric guitar) on every song which, again, might be bearable if Dylan were saying anything worth repeating.
Dylan has certainly earned the right to record whatever kind of album he wants (he’s also earned the right to legally murder My Chemical Romance for their blasphemous cover of “Desolation Row” that showed up on the Watchmen soundtrack earlier this year) and, if Together Through Life is what he wants to be doing right now, bully for him. But I don’t want to hear it. Dylan used to be strident and funny and obnoxious and whimsical and weird, but Together Through Life is dull and predictable and lifeless and, because it is those three things, also depressing as hell. To cope, I’m pretending Bob Dylan died in 1978 and will henceforth refer to him as the late Bob Dylan.
*What do I mean by Clean White Blues? This might hurt some people’s feelings, but – in the immortal words of George Carlin – fuck ’em. Clean White Blues is what tends to pass for regular blues today. Its main purveyors are Eric Clapton, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, John Mayer, and B.B. King. That’s not a joke. For the last few years, King has been playing some serious CWB. Now, “Clean White Blues” is merely a descriptor – I’m not saying you have to be black to play the blues well (although, being a form of music born out of slavery, it does kinda help). There has never been a moment in Rock ‘n’ Roll’s lifetime where it wasn’t borrowing something from the blues (to quote George Carlin again, “All music is the blues”), but somewhere in there, probably toward the end of the 1970s, people (mostly white people) started exhibiting a disturbing tendency to clean up their blues, to water it down, to scrub the dirt, grime, sweat, blood, and sex right off of it (if you doubt the heavy element of sex in all great blues, listen to the way Elmore James played slide guitar and tell me he wasn’t thinking about fucking with every note he picked). This paved the way for people like Jonny Lang and other would-be blues guys (and gals – looking at you, Susan Tedeschi) who could play the notes but were otherwise soulless. The blues is an endangered beast nowadays, and we’re running out of people to whom we can turn to save it. Tom Waits has probably done it the best of late; he tucks little bits of the blues into the dark spaces of his songs, as if he’s trying to smuggle them to safety, like a crafty Alexandrian librarian stashing scrolls away from the fiery wrath of Theophilus. Waits mutated the blues to save it, a trick he’s also turned with folk music. Some time after the late Bob Dylan vacated his home down amongst the marrow, Tom Waits moved in. He knocked down all the walls, blew the roof off the joint, and found a way to go deeper than anyone else dared.