It’s not as if I break out in hives upon listening to a new Bob Dylan record, but it’s not a pleasant activity, ranking below mowing the lawn but above having a cracked filling repaired. In fact, as I think about it, the last time Dylan released an exciting bunch of new songs was in early ’75, Blood on the Tracks, and that coincided with my most recent cavity. And, let’s be honest, that record, while a step up from Planet Waves and New Morning, hasn’t aged all that well, with the clunkers “Meet Me in the Morning” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” getting in the way of his two gold-standard 70s songs “Idiot Wind” and “Tangled Up in Blue.” (I prefer the original acoustic versions, unveiled officially, bootlegs apart, in 1997, since they’re a lot meaner and sung with more conviction, but that’s a quibble.) Why contemporary critics, of whatever age, rhapsodize over Blood in the same sentence as Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde is an irritating mystery, but maybe they’re nicer guys than me.
In fairness, I don’t listen to every one of his new records, but when the media pounces on a release with the tired “Dylan’s Back!” enthusiasm (and some critics are guilty of this misleading theme six or seven times over), it does rouse my curiosity.
Dylan, who turned 68 on May 24—no small accomplishment, considering that the actuarial table of pop stars is on par with Russian factory workers—is indeed an enduring American legend, and when he doesn’t revert to his lifelong habit of making up preposterous stories (which was inventive and fairly audacious in his early 20s and slipping into different personas, but kind of embarrassing for a senior citizen), is one of the most insightful men alive in today’s popular/celebrity culture. It’s just that his last 20 or so records, including his latest, Together Through Life, really stink, and I imagine that once this article is complete I’ll relegate the CD to the pile of near-discards, maybe next to Imagine or anything Morrissey released after he and guitarist Johnny Marr broke up the Smiths, the best band of the 1980s.
The most significant aspect of Dylan’s career right now is orchestrating his legacy, and in that endeavor, unlike so many of his contemporaries and the folk/country/blues/swing musicians he alludes to and borrows from, he’s masterful. No Direction Home, the 2005 documentary directed by star-struck Martin Scorsese—although Dylan was clearly in charge—was brilliant, stopping at 1966 on the last leg of his worldwide tour with the Hawks, an admission by the songwriter that for all his subsequent work, he’s most proud of his kaleidoscopic ’64-‘66 output, even if his eventual obituary will have “protest singer” and a mention of “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the first paragraph. What surprised me about No Direction Home was how precise and articulate Dylan was in the present-day interviews—as compared to a really ditzy Joan Baez—measuring every single word he spoke for posterity.
I say “surprising” simply because the latter-day Dylan has been captured on television and in concert as ludicrously incoherent, giving the impression that he didn’t know what time of the day it was and didn’t care if he came off as one of half-dead losers in his breathtaking ’65 song “Desolation Row.” Just as his book Chronicles: Volume One was wonderfully written—even if he slipped in a doozy here and there, such as the influence Ricky Nelson had on him as a teenager—and his indescribably eclectic Sirius XM “Theme Time Radio Hour” is far more vibrant that any new songs he releases, Dylan’s value today is as an archivist (of his own songs and those artists he admires) and, when the spirit moves him—translated, when it’s in his self-interest—commentator on current and long-forgotten events. It’s quite possible he’d be one of the great talk show hosts of the modern era.
Listening to Together Through Life, it’s possible, I suppose, to believe that Dylan really thinks he’s making exceptional new music. Possible, but not likely: the songs, mostly co-written with Robert Hunter (immediate tip-off), have little lyrical merit and while reviewers have somehow fallen for the singer’s p.r. that he’s incorporating his love for old Chess Records classics with his own tweaks and observations, this record’s a bust. Not wholly embarrassing, but a bust.
One song, “If You Ever Go to Houston,” typifies the entirety of Together Through Life, with David Hildago’s brain-numbing accordian giving the unmistakable feeling that this record is the kind of background music you’d hear at annual state fairs—the soundtrack for a dull walk around the midway with a corn dog in one hand and tickets for rigged games of chance in the other. Dylan, of course, as an emerging star spun the stories that he’d run away as a youth and was a hand in traveling carnivals, an apprentice in the menagerie of sword-swallowers, dwarves, one-legged magicians and loose, aging women with impossibly immense butts and cheap lipstick. He just can’t pull that off now, especially with words like these: “If you ever go to Houston/Better walk right/Keep your hands in your pockets/And your gun belt tight.” Dylan on the lam, one step ahead of the law, with that six-shooter at the ready. Oh, brother.
Slate’s John Dickerson, a smart political writer, was lured in by this song, writing, “By the time you get to ‘If You Ever Go to Houston,’ you feel like you’re in a cantina near the border.” Dickerson, who doesn’t reference any Dylan song before 1975, which is very odd even if he was born in 1968, promiscuously suggests that Dylan’s returning to “his roots,” and says his voice “makes a kind of sideways sense… [His voice is] imperfect, clumpy, and cracked from drought, but it works.” I’ve no idea what “drought” has “cracked” the man’s pipes, but sometimes otherwise level-headed writers go all giddy when writing about Dylan, perhaps attempting to spruce up their own prose with Dylanesque phrases.
Or how about “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”: “Everybody got all the money/Everybody got all the beautiful clothes/Everybody got all the flowers/I don’t even have one single rose/I feel a change comin’ on/and the fourth part of the day’s already gone.” Somehow, I don’t think Dylan’s royalty checks were swallowed by a rogue hedge fund.
I do think it’s nifty that Dylan, nearing 70, is still making music and touring before audiences who increasingly want to get perhaps that last look at an icon; it’s his craft and passion, and who can argue with that dedication and persistence? That’s the good news (at least for Dylan). But this is one guy who grew up during Dylan’s peak creative years, and with very few exceptions (maybe “Catfish,” “Seven Days” and “Jokerman”), the songs he’s composed since the mid-1970s are half-baked and would never even be considered by the staff who help him compile the playlist for his radio show.
Russ Smith's "Nothing is Delivered" is totally mindless drivel. If anything will "soon be forgotten," it's sad, infantile writing like this. Hard to believe that Splice Today even printed it. Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of our generation and "Together Through Life" is another extraordinary record for those who listen carefully and understand it. Russ Smith is clueless, so he trashes it. People like this should be ignored. For those considering this Dylan release, do yourself a favor...IGNORE Smith and buy the record. It's a brilliant work by one of the greatest artists still performing today. Outside of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and a few others, no one today is on Dylan's level. Enjoy it while you can.
Russ Smith is on to something here--proper care of one's teeth is important. He may need to get his ears cleaned, however, as this is really a pretty good album. "This Dream of You" is a masterpiece though, and does overshadow the other songs a bit... it would have made a brilliant live number for Dylan and the Band in 1966.
Thank you Russ for saying what needed to be said. Personally, I always felt that Dylan, as a musician, was grossly overated. His rep. was more deserved for his lyrics/poetry. Keep in mind, Hendrix refused to sing until he heard Dylan. After hearing him sing, Hendrix decided that if Dylan could sing and get away with it, he may as well do the same.
Just what the music biz needs - a reviewer who doesn't listen to the stuff he reviews. You might be careful, Russ: there's a credit crunch on. That "let's knock a legend" sctick is lame, and about as tired as your review. Do yourself a favour and spin the disc once more. Nobody ever said you could grasp culture first time round, anyway...
Who is Russ Smith? Never heard of him. Obviously he thinks he has some authority to make silly staements about music, literature, lyrics of Bob Dylan. But equally obvious he doesn't understand much. His way of dismissing all of Dylan's albums produced after1 970 including such great ones as Blood on the tracks reveals his poor judgements. Dylan's more recent works are of such quality lyrically and musically that they compare favourably with his earliest productions and exceeds the quality of most other singers and writers who are active at present. Mr Smith dismissal of "Together through life" is sad, not for Bob Dylan or for us reading the articlle or us who enjoy the album, but for himself. It is a great record with great lyrics, sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, surprising arrangements and with skillful production. It is less "heavy" and serious than the earlier, most recent albums. You get the impression that Dylan and the band enjoy playing. So buy the album and enjoy some good music!
Hey Russ, your review of the new Dylan album makes about as much sense as your support for invading Iraq.
"In fairness, I don't listen to every one of his new records." I've never heard of Russ Smith, and judging from this self-professed half-asses reviewer, I'll never waste my time reading his tripe again. Absolute rubbish, written by a fool who's not even listening.
I've gotta go with Russ on this one, I don't think Together Through Life is any good. Give the man some respect - he grew up with the masterworks. Is it a surprise that Dylan's later period just isn't as impressive to him? Not that TTL is necessarily bad - it just doesn't come anywhere close to the high watermark set by everything Dylan did before 1976.
Anyone who thinks the albums Dylan has released in the last ten years can compare with the masterworks of the mid sixtes is deaf. I went to the Roma show in april the first time I had seen Dylan since 87 and was shocked at the terrible vocals and lack of enthusiasm by eveyone on stage. I was next to a group of english fans who thought this rubbish was wonderful. give up bob before you become a laughing stock.
Beacham says that Dylan is the "Shakespeare of our generation," which Dylan himself would find silly. Also, what "generation" is Beacham speaking of, since more than one has passed since Robert Shelton first gave notice to Dylan in The New York Times back when JFK was president.
Enjoying this Dylan debate. Been spontaneously sampling new Dylan assessments from a number of friends around the blogosphere, and consider the passions he arouses testament enough to how powerful his voice is, or was, or is again. As a 52-yer-old who actually used to be a Dylan imitator in the 70s, I have long been afraid to say what Russ Smith has just said. Yet some recent guilt-tripping for sharing the same sentiments compelled me to buy two of his albums from recent years. All I can say is, they must need more of my listening time to "take." That said, I still love the guy and find it exciting that he keeps patrolling the old Watchtower....
Gosh Russ, You sure are getting beaten up by your readers. I suspect most of them are young and just getting into Dylan, therefore he can do no wrong. I think the lyrics may be disingenuous, but really, what's he supposed to sing about... erectile dysfunction and sagging jowls? I never liked Dylan but I'm with you in giving him credit for continuing to work.
I agree with Paulo on most points, having seen Dylan a couple of years ago on the West Coast, and it was more interesting for the people-watching than the show itself. I do think that a few of the songs on Together Through Life are pretty good, notably "It's All Good," but the guy is WAY past his prime.
Why is everyone being so mean. I agree with Russ in the fact that Bob Dylan doesn't even compare to his '60s self and that's the reason I will not be buying this album, Modern Times was just awful. You wouldn't see me caught dead with Together Through Life.