Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Together Through Life: Shadows and Doors

Release Date: April 28, 2009
After recording three albums with enough depth for countless doctoral dissertations, Bob Dylan's 2009 LP Together Through Life appears a smaller scale effort at first, yet carries more heft almost a decade later. There's a satisfaction in its existential despair, a despair assuaged through earthly joys and staying low when things get out of control. Working with The Grateful Dead's lyricist Robert Hunter on nine of the ten tracks, the locale shifts to the fringes of American civilization. The first verse of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin" captures this spirit:

Oh Well I love you pretty baby
You're the Only Love I've ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my thrown
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Nothin' we can call our own

The world may be cruel and meaningless, but love makes it worth saving. 

Together Through Life sounds more contemporary in theme and content than Love and Theft and Modern Times, Dylan's addressing the current state of the nation. Released a few months after the inauguration of President Obama, at the height of the bruising Great Recession, these songs allude to the decline of Middle America, something Dylan witnessed firsthand during his tours through the decades, playing venues most of his status would not play. 

The closing track "It's All Good" revels in gallows humor, hinting at a dormant populism pining not for a savior, but a destroyer:

Big politician telling lies
Restaurant kitchen are full of flies
Don't make a bit of difference, don't see why it should
But it's all right, cause it's all good
It's All Good
It's All Good

A later verse projects visions of cities on the down slide:

People on the country, people on the land
Some of them so sick they can hardly stand
Everybody would move away if they could
It's Hard to Believe, but it's all good

Hidden in plain sight by a myopic media and pop culture, the middle of the country is suffering innumerable economic and social ills. The land has always been hard and torn between forging newer, better communities or devolving into conflict, a tension running throughout the Together Through Life.

"Life is Hard" was written for the 2010 film My Own Love Song in which post-Katrina New Orleans plays a peripheral role. "My Wife's Hometown" provides comic relief, but taps into the angry mood cascading the world, "State's gone broke, the county's dry/Don't be lookin' at me with that evil eye." "If you ever Go To Houston" hits the nostalgic sweet spot, a play on Leadbelly's "The Midnight Special" as an aging desperado recalls the Mexican War as he searches for his gal through Texas. "Forgetful Heart" continues the intense woe of "Life is Hard" with one of Dylan's bleakest closing verses:

Forgetful Heart
Like I Walk in Shadow in My Way
All Night Long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed thru forever more
If indeed there ever was a door

"Jolene" lightens the mood with a bluesy ride through Beale Street. "This Dream of You" is  a Mexican influenced love song, melancholy and eloquent. "Shake Shake Mama" reverts back to swaggering blues. 

"I Feel a Change Comin' On" is a highlight of Together Through Life. For years I thought Dylan sang his baby was walking with the "village priest," but it's beast! Dylan's vocal performance is top notch, channeling Fats Domino. 

The dystopian tone of Together Through Life stays rooted in the blues, the form Dylan returns to again and again. Carlos Hidalgo and Mike Campbell were a welcome addition to Dylan's studio band, each bringing their musical ingenuity to the album. 

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006

Release Date October 6, 2008
With Tell Tale Signs Bob Dylan released a wealth of material recorded from 1989-2006, one of the most productive periods of his career. 

Disc 1

A stripped down version of "Mississippi" opens the disc, a song first recorded during the Time Out of Mind Sessions. Dylan later gave the song to Sheryl Crow for her 1998 album The Globe Sessions. "Most of the Time" is more upbeat than the "swampy" production that appeared the official release on Oh Mercy. An early version of "Dignity" features Dylan on piano with some early lyrics, my favorite being, "soul of the nation is under the knife." A far more effective song without the snappy production that appeared on Greatest Hits Vol. III. "Someday Baby" is more restrained than the straight blues entry on Modern Times. "Red River Shore" was another outtake from Time Out Of Mind, a Western epic within the folk tradition, that tale of an elusive muse.

Almost under the radar, Dylan wrote many songs for films during this period, even winning an Oscar for "Things Have Changed" from the 2000 movie Wonder Boys. "Tell Ol' Bill" was written for North Country starring Charlize Theron. A smoothed out version of "Born in Time" from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky is another highlight. An alternate version of "Can't Wait" minus the Daniel Lanois production lacks the sense of existential dread of the album version. "Everything is Broken" sounds similar to what appeared on Oh Mercy, only less intense and angry. "Dreamin' of You" was recorded in during the Time Out of Mind period, snippets of the lyrics would appear on "Standing by the Doorway" and "Can't Wait," providing a brief glimpse into Dylan's songwriting process. "Huck's Tune" was another one written for filmmaker Curtis Hanson, in this case the forgettable 2006 film Lucky You. The gospel tinged blues of "Marchin to the City" is a throwback to the Christian era with an updated sound. Disc One ends with a live version of "High Water (for Charley Patton)" displaying Dylan's ability to chisel his songs during the never-ending tour.

Disc 2

Another version of "Mississippi" kicks off the bonus disc in an effective mid tempo performance. "32-30 blues" from the World Gone Wrong sessions pays tribute to Robert Johnson. "Series of Dreams" sounds similar to the version on Bootlegs Vol. 1,2, and 3. "God Knows" also appears, although I wish they had included the stunning live version Bob and his Band performed at Woodstock '94. "Can't Escape From You" is a masterful song (written for a film that was never made) from Modern Times is melancholy and beautiful, more akin to the songs that would appear on Tempest a few years later. Then a finished version of "Dignity," that lacks the urgency of the piano demo on Disc 1. A stirring performance of "Ring Them Bells" from the legendary New York Supper Club shows Nov. 16-17 1993. The murder ballad "Cocaine Blues" was recorded for a 1997 show. A guitar driven version of "Ain't Talkin" made me think the song would be right at home on a Metal album. "The Girl on the Greenbrier Shore" and "Miss the Mississippi" from the Good As I've Been To You illustrate Dylan's re-engagement with folk during the 1990s. A blistering version of "Lonesome Day Blues" follows. A jaunty duet of "The Lonesome River" with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley is another highlight. "Cross the Green Mountain" was written for the Civil War film Gods and Generals, an era that's long fascinated Dylan. A live performance of "Love Sick" closes the second disc. 

Tell Tale Signs is comprehensive yet at the same time feels like the tip of the iceberg. While it's compelling to hear these songs develop in the studio, as Dylan has said many times, it's in the live performances where they take shape. On a more profound level, the collection places Dylan's evolution in some perspective: culture hero of the 1960s, searching for meaning in the 1970s with obsessions ranging from I Ching to The Late Great Planet Earth, adrift in the 1980s, and, finally, a wistful seeker into the New Millennium. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Modern Times: The Writing's on the Wall

Release Date: August 29, 2006
Recorded over a few weeks in early 2006, Bob Dylan's Modern Times stands as a worthy follow up to "Love and Theft" from 2001, building and expanding upon the themes of the latter album. Replete with historical references and nods to ancient poets, Dylan also inserted commentary on the 21st Century and where it's going. As the title suggests, Dylan took inspiration from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times, Dylan despairs and revels at life in the 21st Century. 

"Thunder on the Mountain" gets things off to a rousing start, featuring a retro intro that invokes the birth of rock and roll. The first verse heralds the coming of end times, then the second pays tribute Alicia Keys. The final lyrics may be a direct reference to Chaplin's 1918 short A Dog's Life. The attitude, sound, and imagery of "Thunder on the Mountain" suggest an alternate way of looking at the modern world, one for staying sane.  

"Spirit in the Water" is an epic love ballad. An epic tale of unrequited love that's been going on for centuries that's much akin to Dante's Beatrice. Each verse packs a punch that alternates between humor, violence, desire, hope, loss, and melancholia. 

"Rollin and Tumblin" returns to the blues, a tribute to Muddy Waters. "Someday Baby" continues along in the same vein of classic blues. 

"When the Deal Goes Down" and "Beyond the Horizon" are theological laments on mortality, produced in the style of 1930s Cole Porter, foreshadowing Dylan's work in the next decade.  

"Workingman's Blues #2" encapsulates the class struggle, a preoccupation of Dylan's going back the early Woody Guthrie influenced material.The first verse proclaims "the buying power of the proletariat gone down" refers back to old left 1930s politics. Along with "Thunder on the Mountain" there are numerous references to the tragicomic adventures of Chaplin. 

I always find "Nettie Moore" to be the most impenetrable song on Modern Times, perhaps due to Dylan's repetitive delivery. The imagery is bleak, full of regret, betrayal, and tragedy. 

"The Levee's Gonna Break" was recorded with Hurricane Katrina fresh on everyone's mind, another track about a flood and tragedy on a biblical scale in a call back to "High Water" on "Love and Theft", here the tone is less defiant and more resigned to fate. The last lyric, "some people are still sleeping; some people are wide awake" reads like a warning.

"Ain't Talkin" revels in apocalyptic imagery, seemingly a continuation of the motif set up in "Thunder on the Mountain." A spiritual warrior walks through a desolate landscape and reflects on many things and speaking of "practicing a faith long abandoned." The past was glorious, the present is depressing, and the future lays in the balance. 

Although Modern Times lacks the electric swagger of "Love and Theft" and borders on being derivative at times, it contains some of Dylan's best work . "Thunder on the Mountain," "Spirit on the Water," and "Workingman's Blues #2" are all diamonds in his catalog. All ten songs would sustain Dylan's live concerts in the years to come, an impressive feat in itself. 

The old world perspective, feelings of loss and faint hope, and a sense of the mythical American landscape all define Modern Times.