Just Say No to Dylan
by Joseph Kugelmass
4 May 2009
Dylan's new album of rough-and-ready love songs, Together Through
This, is proof that he needs a little nudge back onto a darker path.
"There's a new Dylan album coming out," my father announced, at the
end of our weekly conversation.
"Have you heard any of the songs?"
"No. It's supposedly an album of love songs."
For me, growing up amidst the '60s hangover of small town Northern
California, Bob Dylan was always one of those artists whose work
provided a bridge back to the lost Eden of the '60s. He never seemed
to date himself or to become a novelty: his classic albums were
always digressive and angry enough to keep their relevance and cool
from one generation to the next.
Thus, when Dylan began his mighty comeback with Time Out of Mind, I
bought it right alongside albums by Radiohead, Pavement, and Tori
Amos. I've followed him fairly closely ever since, and, like parents
and friends, I've taken an interest in the new Dylan books and films,
including Chronicles, I'm Not There, and Scorsese's No Direction Home.
The single song that best defines Dylan's return didn't appear on any
album: it is "Things Have Changed," a tough, despairing song about a
civilization perilously close to the rocks. This song had many
cousins, including tracks like "Not Dark Yet" and "Cold Irons Bound"
on Time Out of Mind, as well as "High Water" on Love and Theft. All
these songs, in truth, seemed like hoarse, ragged reflections in the
vein Dylan first opened back on his Freewheelin' album, with "A Hard
Rain's A-Gonna Fall". It was as if Dylan, like Leonard Cohen before
him, reappeared as a vengeful ghost to warn society of what was
coming, at a period when it needed him most desperately.
In this role, naturally, there can be no question of whether Dylan is
an "insincere" artist, a question that always hovers around his work
because a lot of his jealous contemporaries didn't buy his Woody
Guthrie routine. You can ask whether or not Conor Oberst or Jenny
Lewis is sincere, perhaps, but to ask the same question of "Gates of
Eden" is to court absurdity, because Dylan is not concerned with
himself. (On "Things Have Changed," he says "I've been trying to get
as far away from myself as I can.") It would be like calling Paul
Newman "insincere" in his invention of Cool Hand Luke.
Instead, the first real instance of insincerity from Dylan was when,
around the time of his '90s comeback, he announced that he'd always
cared more for '50s rock 'n' roll than for political music. This
claim is flatly contradicted by his actual recordings, but Dylan went
with it, moving further backwards from '50s rock to swing, lush
blues, and other pre-rock idioms on songs like "Moonlight".
Now, hard on the heels of a fascinating retrospective album (Tell
Tale Signs), Dylan has unspooled an album about the enduring power of
love, leaning on collaborator Robert Hunter, who likes to write
lyrics like this: "Silvio / silver and gold / won't buy back the beat
of a heart grown cold." I half expected a new Dylan song to float
through the trailer of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.
It's the classic case of an artist getting the wrong kind of
encouragement for the wrong reasons. Taste makers like NPR were
excited by Dylan's sidesteps into genres like swing. It felt
impressively anthropological, as though we could count on Dylan to
continue remembering pieces of our musical history for us. Dylan was
transformed into some version of Alan Lomax, if Lomax had taken all
those Smithsonian songs and re-recorded them himself.
Furthermore, writing love songs seems like a logical place to go
after writing songs about the gathering dark: "come in, she said,
I'll give ya / shelter from the storm." But Dylan's never been a
lover. His most romantic songs, as well as his most piercing farewell
notes, have been reserved for women who were only passing moments,
and he is kindest to the people with whom love failed (as he is kind
in "If You See Her, Say Hello"). His listeners, if they have any
range at all, are puzzling over the real expressions of love in
Ne-Yo's Year of the Gentleman, or in The-Dream's Love Vs. Money, or
in all the songs by Karen Dreijer Andersson (Fever Ray, the Knife).
We don't need Dylan to make sense of the home or the bedroom for us.
Instead, he is avoiding the real question, which is who he saw when
he walked all those miles of bad road. Instead of confronting us with
all those hungry eyes, he only has eyes for his pretty baby. She's
the only love he's ever known. He just wants to make love to her.
It's a dodge, and, finally, we his fans have to shrug our shoulders
and ruefully admit that he's being insincere with us.
We don't need Bob Dylan to guide us through a museum of American
music and the tropes of redemptive love. We need him in the here and
now, in the bleak present. Something is happening here, and for the
first time in over a decade, Dylan doesn't know what it is.
Dylan captures the changing times to hit No 1
The Guardian, Monday 4 May 2009
Almost 40 years after his last number one record, Bob Dylan shot
straight to the number one spot in the official UK album chart
yesterday, suggesting the times are a-changin' back to the American
His new album, Together Through Life, gives Dylan, who will be 68
later this month, the dubious honour of holding the record for the
longest gap between solo number-one albums, according to the Official
Charts Company. The title was previously enjoyed by the veteran Welsh
singer Tom Jones, whose 1999 comeback, Reload, topped the UK charts
more than 31 years after the success of Delilah in August 1968.
Dylan's last chart-topping album, New Morning, was released in
October 1970, reaching number one on November 28. Together Through
Life is his 33rd studio album and his 53rd album, including
compilations and soundtracks. He first reached number one with The
Freewheelin' Bob Dylan released in 1964.
The number one comes as his critically acclaimed UK tour ended last
night in Edinburgh.
Gennaro Castaldo, of the music store chain HMV, said: "His words and
music remain as relevant and as powerful today as five decades ago.
"His albums always sell well, but with demand for his catalogue of
recordings up significantly in recent months, it's evident that Dylan
is going through one of his zeitgeist moments as a new generation of
fans join his more established followers in appreciating his musical legacy."
Bob Dylan: Time For One More Change?
By Joe Klein Monday,
May. 11, 2009
It didn't have to come to this. He could have died in that motorcycle
crash or been shot by a crazed fan or sky-walked out a 10th-story
window during a bad trip. But Bob Dylan--the great American artist of
the past 50 years, I believe--survived, which is perhaps the only
prosaic thing he's done in his life. A half-decade older than the
oldest baby boomers, 68 on May 24, he has predicted their
maturation--marriage, divorce, finding and losing religion, midlife
crisis and regeneration, a second wind, a third.
And now, with the release of his 46th album, Together Through Life,
Dylan is, officially, old. Listening to these songs, I imagine him as
one of the last guests at someone else's 70th-birthday party, sitting
at a table that's been cleared except for the wine stains and bread
crumbs. He's wearing a bolo tie and his scraggly mustache, telling
stories about women he used to know but never cared for all that much.
Actually, Dylan announced the onset of his seniority in 1997 with the
excellent Time Out of Mind, a dark and wistful album that looked
backward more than forward, his voice a nasal husk of itself,
accessible only to his most persistent fans. There was a high-tech
hipness to Time Out of Mind--the damp, echoey sound provided by
producer Daniel Lanois--that doesn't exist on the new album.
Everything about Together Through Life is simple: the lyrics (a
collaboration with the old Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter), the
instrumentation and the sound, which Dylan admits, in an interview
posted on his website, is an homage to the Chess records of his
youth. "I like the mood of those records--the intensity," he says.
"The sound is uncluttered. There's power and suspense. The whole
vibration feels like it could be coming from inside your mind. It's
alive. It's right there. Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache."
Well, power and suspense ... in a sad, languid way: the power of a
sunset, the only suspense the shock you feel when it suddenly slips
away, casting strawberry light on the outline of distant clouds. It
is now apparent that there has been a narrative arc to Dylan's
career. He started obvious, then exploded surreal--each new album a
surprise of some sort--and is now back to being obvious again.
He began as a tribute act: Woody Guthrie reinvented, down to the
studio photos in which he pooched his lips like Woody and held his
guitar the same way. On his first, eponymous album, Dylan sang mostly
other people's songs--except for one talking blues and the haunting
"Song to Woody," which was an exercise in folk classicism. He wrote
new lyrics to the tune of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre," just as Guthrie
had applied his lyrics to the ancient ballads he'd learned from his mother.
The old lefty folk community embraced Dylan even as he quickly
surpassed Guthrie, writing his own music to go with his brilliant
lyrics to protest the atrocities of the 1960s, songs like "Blowin' in
the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." But four-chord,
straight-ahead folk music proved, well, boring after a while, and
Dylan betrayed the folk pedants by going electric--"Judas!" they
cried in England--and the ideology-encrusted hard-liner Pete Seeger
tried to pull the plug on Dylan's breakthrough performance at the
1965 Newport Folk Festival.
There followed one of the most amazing explosions of creativity in
the history of songwriting, a three-album epiphany--Bringing It All
Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde
(1966)--in which cascades of surrealistic, high-art lyrics were
married to the most elegant rock-'n'-roll musicianship. That was
brought to a violent stop by Dylan's near fatal motorcycle crash in
1966, and when he resumed, the music--even the sound of his
Each new album became an exploration--he went country, he went
bluesy, he became a Christian, he re-became a Jew. His mature work of
genius, Blood on the Tracks, came out of nowhere in 1975. There were
other albums that were not so good--but it was all fascinating, all
infused with Dylan's lacerating intelligence. If it stuck in your
head like a toothache, the dentist was also providing some dreamy
He is still true, even now, with Together Through Life. It will not
go down among his best albums, but the music is good, and the mood is
poignant to the point of intoxication, the wheezy nostalgia anchored
by David Hidalgo's magnificent accordion work. Dylan can still get
frisky, as he does with the last track on the album, "It's All Good,"
in which the banality of that expression is demolished in escalating
scenes of horror.
But there is no mistaking that the essential landscape of the old
master's life has changed. Police officers, who used to be the
objects of rage and ridicule, are now necessary public servants: "Mr.
Policeman, can you help me find my gal?/ Last time I saw her was at
the Magnolia Hotel." Which raises the question: Did she wander off in
an Alzheimic haze, or did Bob? After all, he now mourns that his
"forgetful heart/ lost your power of recall."
So much for staying forever young. Unlike that other Dylan--Thomas,
whose name he appropriated--Bob doesn't rage against the dying of the
light. He savors it, tries to understand it, enjoys the long-term
memories--the sound of Chess records--sighs and heads home: "The sun
is sinking low/ I guess it's time to go/ I feel a chilly breeze/ in
place of memories." But it's not over yet, is it, Bob? The creative
arc's not complete. You've got one more trick, right? ... Bob?