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Vol. LXIII, No. 21
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
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Record Review

On The Road With Dylan: “It Helps To Be Moving”

Stuart Mitchner

What happens is, I’ll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That’s the way I meditate …. I meditate on a song. I’ll be playing Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” for instance, in my head constantly — while I’m driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I’m talking back, but I’m not. I’m listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I’ll start writing a song.

Bob Dylan

Driving into New York with Bob Dylan’s new album, Together Through Life (Columbia $18.97) on the CD player, the union of motion and music makes every song a road song. Give yourself up to the positive negative movement of the album’s closing track, an upbeat downbeat rocker called “It’s All Good,” and the happy litany of misery hits you like an adrenaline shot of angry freedom, with its lying politicians, fly-infested kitchens, unfaithful wives, crying widows, pleading orphans, crumbling buildings, and cold-blooded killers, and, hey, a Shakespearean battle cry at the end (“I’ll pluck off your beard”), whee, yippee, it’s all good! Next thing you know you’re doing 85 and already rehearsing an explanation for the cop you imagine pulling you over, “Dylan made me do it, officer. Just listen to this!”

What can you say about a force of creation that after almost half a century (Dylan marked his 68th birthday Sunday) is still making musical art on a canvas large enough to contain Shakespeare and Willie Dixon, Billie Joe Shaver and James Joyce? I didn’t expect to be writing about the new album. The fact that Dylan was sharing credit for the lyrics with Robert Hunter didn’t sound promising, nor did the idea that the album began with a composition (“Life is Hard”) written for a French road movie called My Own Love Song. Anyway, how could he possibly come close to 2006’s Modern Times and its haunted and haunting last track, that sinister meditation in motion, ”Ain’t Talkin”? Not to worry. “It’s All Good” takes a simpler route toward the same essential message, steers clear of “mystic gardens” and “cities of the plague,” kicks up the tempo, blows your beard in your face, and sends you speeding merrily down that same “long and lonesome road.”

Though the reviews so far (79/100 “Generally Favorable” notices on Meta-Critic) can’t match the raves given Modern Times and Love and Theft, the new record debuted at Number One in the U.S. and U.K. (his first there in almost 40 years), and has gone on to top the charts all over the world.

The Voice

The plan was to begin my all-Dylan-drive by playing his Greatest Hits Volume III , which opens with “Tangled Up in Blue,” a performance from 1975 that shows as much sheer joy in the singing as anything Dylan or anyone else ever did. What better music to roll down Route 27 out of Princeton with, speaking of road movies (“We drove that car as far as we could”), and what a contrast between the buoyant clarity of Dylan’s vocal and the current incarnation that has reviewers of Together Through Life outdoing themselves to describe his “croaky grumblings,” “barbed-wire croak,” “coarse, wounded howl,” “frog-ified singing,” his “vividly battered” voice, that “ungodly comic weapon.” The Rolling Stone reviewer goes all film noir trying to account for the “deep, exhausted rasp that sounds like the singer has been beaten to a pulp, then left for dead at the side of the road.” A more reasoned account comes from the resident historian on Dylan’s website, Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, who calls it “a blues rasp” that reminds him of Howlin’ Wolf.

Aware that critics and others would be all over the subject, Dylan offers up lines like “I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice” in “I Feel a Change Coming On.” I’m surely not the only one who, at first listen, heard “land” as “lamb,” and Dylan being Dylan, he may want it both ways. As always, he’s his own best critic. When Bill Flanagan asks him in an interview on about “the character” in the new song “This Dream of You,” he says, It’s not a character like in a book or a movie …. It’s me who’s singing that, plain and simple. We shouldn’t confuse singers and performers with actors. Who cares about the character? Just get up and act.”

One thing that Dylan’s album in prose Chronicles Volume One makes clear is that he’s always been an enlightened and constructive listener. The fact that he’s been more and more openly quoting or absorbing or meditating on other songs and singers in his recent work shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read Chronicles, with its frequent celebrations of his own listening experiences. Writing about Ricky Nelson, he notes that “In a few years’ time he’d record some of my songs, make them sound like they were his own, like he had written them himself.” Dylan seems to be making the same point about Dylan in the same 2004 interview quoted at the top when he talks about the evolution of a composition, of how a song he knows starts playing in his head while he “meditates on it” obsessively, “constantly,” particularly as he’s “driving a car.”

It Helps to be Moving

Since this column is set to music in a car, Princeton to Manhattan and back, with Dylan for fuel, it’s nice to hear him stressing the relationship between meditation and motion. In Chronicles he spells it out: “You can write a song anywhere, in a railroad compartment, on a boat, on horseback — it helps to be moving.” He even goes on to suggest that there are people with great songwriting talent who “never write any because they are not moving.” A few pages later when describing the genesis of one of his best songs, “Dignity,” he imagines it moving on the road ahead of him, like another vehicle : “It’s like I saw the song up in front of me and overtook it.”

When it’s you and Dylan and the New Jersey Turnpike, you can look over at the passenger seat and see the new album’s message on the cover of the CD of Together Through Life, which features Bruce Davidson’s photograph of a couple making out in the back seat of a moving car, “Life” positioned above the image as if to suggest it’s all one, the highway, the journey, and the phenomenon of “tangled-up” romance the album is exploring. The title is something of an anomaly among the titles of his other albums. Its suggestion of some kind of commitment, romantic or simply human, could refer back to the rumored source, Walt Whitman’s “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame,” which celebrates “the brotherhood of lovers, how it was with them,/How through life, through dangers, odium, unchanging, long and long,/Through youth, and through middle and old age, how unfaltering, how affectionate and faithful they were.”

Except of course that the lovers and losers in this album are hardly “unfaltering” and not likely to be “faithful.”

“Not Dark Yet”

One of the advantages of never having been a Dylanite, or Disciple of Bob, is that you tend to experience only the peaks of his career. No need to suffer through the valleys or the dry stretches; no need to rationalize or loyally share the phases he’s gone through to get to the resurgence that seems to have begun with Time Out of Mind, an album I didn’t know until Friday’s drive into New York. The song I keep coming back to is “Not Dark Yet,” which is best heard not on the road but as you’re sitting drained and exhausted in the driveway at home after fighting through a fierce, 50-minute rush hour nightmare getting into the Lincoln Tunnel. While it isn’t exactly a swan song (“It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there”), it has a way of soothing the spirit and settling the mind, however dark and weary the end-thought hour.

For the record, the song of Dylan’s I found most likely to induce speeding was “It’s All Good.” Songs that helped me through that ordeal at the Lincoln Tunnel were a mix of old and new, including a few from 2001’s Love and Theft, where Dylan channels “Old Man River” and early Bing Crosby, among others, while inventing, as Gary Giddins has observed, “his own Tin Pan Alley.” The ensemble playing on the new album was a special pleasure, thanks to Mike Campbell, Donny Herron, Tony Garnier, George Recile, and not least the traffic-calming charm of David Hildago’s accordion. While the infectious and unstoppable riffs on “If You Ever Go to Houston,” “Jolene,” and “It’s All Good” were a joy to drive to, the best road song of the lot turned out to be “My Wife’s Hometown,” which transported one weary, aging driver from homebound gridlock back to the great American road movie of southern Indiana high-school summer nights driving for driving’s sake, the top of the fire-enginered Buick Special down, singing along with Muddy Waters (“I Just Want to Make Love to You”), everything coming through loud and clear on WLAC all the way from Nashville Tennesee.

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