Together Through Life

April 28, 2009|By Rashod D. Ollison

Bob Dylan [Columbia Records] ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

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Bob Dylan's got the blues. On Together Through Life, his new album in stores Tuesday, the pop legend goes for a blues-suffused, Tex-Mex sound that evokes bygone barroom nights of dancing and drinking. A guitar weeps, an accordion whines and wheezes as the drums shuffle. Dylan's tattered, croaking voice looms over the dusty grooves like a dark storm cloud.

The peppery musical blend of folk, Tin Pan Alley-style pop, Americana and Southern blues is sometimes flavorful. And Dylan's hardened voice gives it a certain authenticity that he strained for in his halcyon days as a young artist.

But ultimately, Together Through Life isn't as compelling as the fine trilogy of critically lauded, platinum-selling albums that preceded it: 1997's Time Out of Mind, 2001's Love and Theft and 2006's Modern Times. Those Grammy winners rippled with inspired, sometimes pointed lyrics and engaging arrangements.

The new album isn't as immediate. For all its attractive muskiness, the music often drifts into generic blues shuffles with hardly any bite.

The CD starts promisingly enough. The suave groove of "Beyond Here Lies Nothing" recalls early Bobby Bland sans the punchy brass. The band really cooks here as Dylan swaggers through the number. But the momentum is halted by "Life Is Hard," the song that actually prompted the album. Written for a coming film by French director Oliver Dahan, the song crawls, leading nowhere interesting. It's also one of the weakest lyrics here: "I don't know what's wrong or right/I just need the strength to fight, fight that world outside."

For any other songwriter, this would be gold. But Dylan, the celebrated poet of rock, has done much better recently with the overly familiar theme of romantic defeat. "My Wife's Home Town" aspires to be the kind of blues number with a delicious sting that solicits a chuckle and a smile. But instead, it falls flat with the anticlimactic line, "I just wanna say that hell's my wife's home town."

"I Feel a Change Comin' On" is the only cut that comes close to Dylan's brilliant use of symbolism: "I'm looking the world over, looking far off to the east," he sings. "I see my baby coming/She's walking with the village priest." Later in the song, he name-drops Billy Joe Shaver and James Joyce. The closing cut, "It's All Good," is the album's high point where Dylan's acerbic wit shines through: "Dreams never did work for me anyway/Even if they did come true."

It's a sour way to end the mixed bag of an album. But it's also the set's most satisfying moment.

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