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. 

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