It’s been four years since Bob Dylan completed what is generally looked upon as a career-saving trilogy. Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft and Modern Times were all released to tumultuous applause; add Chronicles, his frankly astounding memoir to the list, and it’s possible we’re witnessing the original ‘voice of a generation’ at his most potent.
Dylan’s new studio album Together Through Life is his 46th. His current run of form is well into its second decade, amazing when you consider the average shelf life of most modern pop-stars, and fans and critics alike marvel at how this 68 year old manages to keep the creative juices flowing so freely. The key, it seems, can be found in his longevity itself. Dylan, after all, is not a pop star. He’s arguably the most influential American artist to have escaped from the 20th century, and he dates back to an almost mythical time. As long as the music industry keeps pumping out glitter-sprayed American Idols, a huge audience will exist for something that hails from the dusty past.
‘I think we milked it all we could on that last record, and then some,’ said the self-proclaimed song and dance man in a recent interview on his website. ‘The songs on Modern Times brought my repertoire up to date, and the light was directed in a certain way.’ Other than a slightly awkward reference to Alicia Keyes, it’s hard to see how the album – or its two predecessors – could possibly be seen as up to date.
Indeed, the sepia tinge and ragged corners were amongst their most attractive aspects. Love & Theft, released with chilling foresight on September 11, 2001, found Dylan escaping a world gone wrong and punning around in the backwoods of old America, a simple time when outlaws and conmen were more easily understood. Modern Times followed suit, dripping with mighty apocalyptic imagery, comforting in its antiquity.
A decade earlier, and things were very different. Dylan was at a make-or-break point in his career. Embroiled in sessions with U2’s producer Daniel Lanois, reportedly fraught with tension and guitar-smashing incidents, he succumbed to a life-threatening heart infection that shook him to his core. ‘I thought I’d be seeing Elvis soon,’ he quipped as he left the hospital. The album that surfaced shortly afterwards was a shock tour-de-force. Time Out of Mind had bags of quality, as dark and unsettling as anything Robert Johnson ever recorded, and won the embattled songwriter three Grammies.
So, what changed? After spending the 80s in absolute mediocrity, how did the former 60s heavyweight manage to pull himself back off the ropes? The answer seems to be that he remembered where he came from. ‘The land created me,’ he explained. ‘I’m wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I’m more at home in the vacant lots.’ After a recent trip to Tupelo, the home town of Elvis Presley, he was asked if he could still hear the sounds that inspired the King. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘but I felt the ghosts from the bloody battle that Sherman fought against Forrest.
There’s an eeriness to that town. A sadness that lingers.’ Dylan’s best tracks, from ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ to ‘Blind Willie McTell’, have always been populated by lost ghosts out on the land. It’s what his fans have wrapped themselves up in, and his last three albums have been like thick, cozy duvets, comfort guaranteed.
What, then, are we to expect from his latest collection? Well, early signs suggest that his master’s voice is just as loud, if not flecked in years of abuse. The songs on Together Through Life enjoy a similar vibe to the last album, whether Dylan thinks so or not. The major difference is the introduction of an accordion player to the lineup, an instrument that he calls ‘orchestrative and percussive’ and, tellingly, associates with his childhood. The overall feel of the album has been likened to something the Chess brothers might have produced for Muddy Waters, another artist from the well-worked dirt.
Lyrically, it seems to deal heavily with hopes and dreams. ‘Dreams can tell us a lot about ourselves, if we remember them,’ he says. ‘I’ve always connected them up with fears about the future. Hopes and fears go together like a comedy team.’
Ultimately, the album seems to represent a meditation on love – though, coming from an artist as wilful as Bob Dylan, it’s never going to be that simple. ‘I have a love for humankind, a love of truth, and a love of justice,’ he told author Bill Flanagan. ‘I think I have a dualistic nature. I’m more of an adventurous type than a relationship type.’
Bob’s best bloopers
1 Bob Dylan may have a ‘road map to the soul’, but his knowledge of North London leaves a lot to be desired. In the early 90s he was invited to a house party, held by Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. At the appointed time he took a cab to Crouch End, but got out on the wrong side of town. Knocking at what he presumed was the correct number, he asked for Dave. ‘He’s not back yet,’ replied the astounded occupant, ‘but you’re welcome to come in and wait.’
As fate would have it, Dylan had arrived at the door of Dave the local plumber, who happened to be out on a job. Ever courteous, Dave’s wife took the rock legend into the lounge and offered him a cuppa. By all accounts, he sat quietly and politely supped his tea, presumably surprised by the down-home decor the Eurythmic seemed to favour.
When Dave the plumber eventually arrived home, he asked his wife if there were any messages. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘but Bob Dylan’s having a cup of tea in the front room.’
2 Dylan is known amongst his fan base for being nothing if not punctual. In 1995, the audience at Dublin’s Point Theatre gig sat through an unusually long introduction tape, while promoters panicked backstage. Bob Dylan was nowhere to be found. The story goes that, tired of the tour bus, the tassel-haired singer pulled on his raincoat, rented a bicycle and set about riding from the hotel to the venue. After a pleasant detour through the Dublin suburbs, he peddled happily up to the backstage door, only to be turned away by concerned security guards. In an attempt to please the visiting American superstar, the guards explained, the authorities were making a concerned effort to keep the area tramp-free. It’d be best for all concerned if he took his tasseled hair, his raincoat and his pushbike, and crawled back under the bridge he came from.
3 Earlier this year, Dylan was reported to the Malibu authorities when a toilet on his property began wafting smells that caused sickness in the local community. According to local reports, the offending latrine emitted a chemical odour that carried easily on the Pacific breeze, prompting journalists to fall over themselves in their search for suitable puns from Dylan’s vast lyrical cannon. Obvious standouts included the titles, ‘Blowin’ In the Wind,’ ‘Idiot Wind’, and the lyrics to ‘North Country Girl,’ which celebrates winds that ‘hit heavy on the borderline.’
‘Together Through Life’ is out now on Columbia Records.