In 2009 Bob Dylan released two albums, something that has played a little bit of havoc with this blog’s central thrust of “one Dylan year per week” since it has made it harder to divide up the time. Fortunately, I’ve been traveling (to a hotel with essentially no internet service – let’s see if we can get this out there!) and I’ve had a lot of opportunity to listen to both of these albums. Today I’ll deal with the first 2009 album, Together Through Life.
Short version: First Dylan album in quite some time that I just flat out do not like.
Longer version: Wow, that’s a lot of accordion for a Bob Dylan album.
Together Through Life began when Dylan was asked by French filmmaker Olivier Dahan to produce a song for the soundtrack of his movie My Own Love Song (which I’ve never even heard of – more next week, it was a 2010 release). Dylan and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter then produced a ton of songs, a few of which wound up going to the film and the rest of them ended up here. Of the ten songs here, nine are collaborations with Hunter (and one of those, “My Wife’s Home Town” is also credited to Willie Dixon).
Here’s the thing: Dylan and Hunter are best known for their collaboration of “Silvio”, from Down in the Groove. This is one of my least favourite Dylan songs. In fact, I kind of hate it. So now I have a whole album of Silvios. Yay.
Lyrically, this is one of Dylan’s least interesting albums. There’s a lot here where I found myself wondering “It took two people to write this?”. None of the songs strike me as top tier material, and so the whole album just sort of rolls over me without making much of an impression. By about the tenth time listening to this album a couple of songs had begun to stand out, but it almost seemed to require an effort to actually care about them. One thing that I’ve learned this year for sure is that I have almost no interest in The Grateful Dead at all, so more Dead-ish songs from Dylan is a downer for me.
Let’s kick the tires:
As I’ve already said, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” is the best song on the album. I can even go “very good” on this one to be charitable. Musically it is the most interesting. Dylan recorded this album with his touring band plus Mike Campbell of The Heartbreakers (i.e. Tom Petty and…) and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. It’s Hidalgo on accordion through so many of these songs. It works well here. The song has a sound that isn’t that far from the Lanois-produced New Orleans sound, and it works quite well. Actually, the accordion fills are great. I do think that having that music video seemed into my brain has impacted the way that I listen to this song, and not necessarily in a good way. But let’s call it “very good”. I’d save this song for the future.
“Life Is Hard”. This is a tougher one for me to get my head around. I sort of like the lyrics and I sort of like the way that it sounds so unbelievably tossed off – like someone is recording a drunken Dylan sitting in a chair by a fire at 4:00am. The mandolin is good here. So, yeah, better than I initially thought. It’s a sad one, that’s for sure.
“My Wife’s Home Town”. I don’t like the accordion nearly as much in this one, nor the guitar, nor the growling of Dylan’s voice. It’s sort of a one-joke song: “I just wanna say that Hell’s my wife’s home town”. Get it? Then you’ve got it.
“If You Ever Go to Houston”. Here the accordion works. This song has some swing to it, and I enjoy it as a pretty minor Dylan song. It’s not essential by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice. Lots of accordion – holy cats, does he ever stop?
“Forgetful Heart” is one that I think is just fine. It’s dark and moody and Dylan talk-sings his way through it nicely.
“Jolene”. I was sort of hoping for a Dolly Parton cover, I have to admit it. This is just a pretty standard blues song that doesn’t amount to very much. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but it doesn’t stand out much either.
“This Dream of You”. This is the single song here not written with Hunter. I think it is the least memorable song on the whole album. It’s just sort of bland.
“Shake Shake Mama” I actively dislike this blues number.
“I Feel A Change Comin’ On”. Musically harkens back to some of his 1970s sounds. Lyrically it isn’t that bad. I don’t like this version, but like some of the live versions, so I give it a pass.
“It’s All Good”. Falls into the “Shake Shake Mama” category.
I think that this is an album that starts better than it ends. There is one very good song, and a couple of good ones, some unmemorable ones, and a couple of unlikeable ones. It’s not a terrible album or anything, but parts of it feel really unnecessary.
There are two songs here where the first lyric is also the title of the song. I’ve become semi-obsessed with this as a bizarre factoid, just for the record: “If You Ever Go to Houston” and “Forgetful Heart”. Not sure what it all means.
This album debuted at #1 in the US and UK, by the way, and was, again, critically acclaimed. Dylan on a roll.
Also, I really dislike this album cover. Dylan doesn’t have many (any?) covers that I actually like, but this one I actively dislike. Just for the record.