A glorious, ramshackle rag-bag stuffed with good times, black humour and great swathes of accordion
Bob Dylan had the devil of a time working on the soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, caught up in the director’s typically tempestuous war with the film’s producers over a movie they didn’t understand and eventually butchered, Dylan’s musical contributions suffering a similar fate in the fragmented version originally released in 1973.
Hollywood, though, has been kinder since to Bob. Asked in 2000 to write something for LA Confidential director Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, he came up with “Things Have Changed”, his first new song since 1997’s Time Out Of Mind. It duly won him an Oscar and a Golden Globe – awards that could have as easily gone to “Cross The Green Mountain”, a sombre Civil War epic full of gloomy portent he wrote for 2003’s Gods And Generals. The song, however, was played over the closing credits of a film no-one went to see and before it was rehabilitated on last year’s Tell Tale Signs collection, was available only on a soundtrack CD hardly anyone had heard.
Now apparently we have another movie project to thank for not just a single song, but an entire album.
Last year, French filmmaker Olivier Dahan, director of Edith Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose, invited Dylan to write some songs for his new film, My Own Love Song, a romantic road movie of sorts starring Renée Zellweger and Forest Whitaker. Dylan responded with “Life Is Hard”, an aching ballad, mandolin, pedal steel and Dylan’s dark and wounded voice to the fore. Suddenly inspired, Dylan, as legend now insists, kept on writing and the next thing anyone knew he had nine more new songs and not long after that had finished the album, which is now upon us in all its rowdy glory.
It sounds pretty much like you hoped it would – like something recorded and written quickly, not quite on the hoof, but close to it, Dylan apparently eager to get these new songs down with a raw immediacy, which he largely has. My immediate opinion, since it seems that’s what’s required here, is that Together Through Life is in many respects as raffishly ebullient as any record Dylan has put his name to since The Basement Tapes. It was great to hear him sounding so wry and playful on, say, “Love And Theft”, an album of bountiful humour. But here Bob sounds like he’s having a ball in different ways, the joint jumping with him, everybody digging the groove, Dylan’s redoubtable touring band augmented by David Hidalgo from Los Lobos, whose accordion is featured just about everywhere, and Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell. The album’s a gas, a riot, a hoot.
And this despite the disconsolate mood of key tracks and the hard look the album takes at what’s left of the world at the time of writing (“Widows cry, orphans bleed/Everywhere you look, there’s more misery”). There’s an inclination to see Dylan’s late songs – let’s say from Time Out Of Mind on – as largely preoccupied with mortality, principally his own, the general passing of things, among them youthful vigour, and the bad bits life has waiting for us, licking their chops. This is perhaps because of Time Out Of Mind’s “Not Dark Yet”, a great song that yet casts a somewhat distorted shadow over a lot that’s followed, as if it alone defines his later repertoire.
Much of Together Through Life can be seen as further unflinching reflection on life’s transience, it’s true, as Dylan dwells on time doing nothing but running out fast and the hostility of an unfriendly world, from whose clutches, repeatedly, the singer wants to escape – into dreams, memories, a past that haunts him, the arms of those he’s loved now lost to him.
The lyrics allude frequently to sinking suns, chilly winds, eternal loneliness, twilight reveries, final voyages to unspecified destinations, the seeping away of the day’s last light. But despite the admittedly bereft mood and musical voicings of songs like, say, “Life Is Hard” (the only example of the crooning vocal style latterly favoured by Dylan), “Forgetful Heart” (its stalking tempo reminiscent of “Ain’t Talkin’”), “This Dream Of You”(a fiddle-led waltz), or the gorgeous “I Feel A Change Coming On” (passingly reminiscent of “Workingman’s Blues #2”), the album can barely be described as mordant or particularly downbeat.
The record, you could say, in fact is characterised by a kind of boisterous fatalism, a stoic swagger that may remind you of the old blues dictum: “You might get better, but you’ll never get well.” By which is meant, I suppose, that while what’s waiting for us is nothing we’ll be especially happy about, there may yet be adventure and high old times in the getting there. In other words, if life is something we lose, the least we can do is make the noisy most of it.
Thus, blues romps like “Jolene” and “Shake Mama Shake” share a carnal jauntiness, full of rollicking good humour, sound more sulphuric, less formal than their comparatively more stately equivalents on Modern Times, “Rollin’ And Tumblin” and “Someday Baby”. Opener “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” does much to set the rambunctious tone of a lot that follows, Hidalgo’s accordion fronting a flurry of horns, tumbling drums and a wonderfully lithe instrumental groove, Dylan’s vocal gloriously growly.
The sardonic “My Wife’s Hometown”, meanwhile, is another stripped down blues, at once wry and exclamatory, as cracked and leathery as an old saddle or the nag it sits upon. On the sheerly irresistible Texas jump of “If You Ever Go To Houston”, the band are uncommonly lively company, powered by Hidalgo’s riffing accordion and kicking up the dust like people who turn up at a party and before you know it are blowing doors off their hinges, juggling cats and running around with their hair on fire, that kind of crowd. “If you ever go to Austin, Fort Worth or San Anton’,” Dylan sings, “Find the barrooms I got lost in and send my memories home”.
The album’s inclination towards bleak humour finds its most vivid expression on darkly ironic closer, “It’s All Good”, a litany of personal and national woe on which Dylan takes a jaundiced look at the republic – “Big politician tellin’ lies/Restaurant kitchen all full of flies” – and finds little to admire, much that draws his contempt.
More scholarly types than myself are already hovering over Together Through Life, no doubt to tell us from which obscure blues or classical source Dylan has imported lyrics (“Beyond Here Lies Nothing” is apparently a quote from Ovid, a very funny couplet in “My Wife’s Hometown” is evidently derived from Chaucer). I’ll cheerfully leave them to it, turn the record up real loud and shake this mama one more time.
For more album reviews, click here for the UNCUT music archive