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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Friday, June 12, 2009


I'm home, having finished the Bob Dylan & the Poetry of the Blues tour. It ended in Holmfirth Parish Church late last Saturday evening. Yep, the venue was a still-functioning parish church; a bit weird to have them set up a bar inside, and to see people taking their glasses of wine and beer into the pews.

Next day, it was the christening of grandson Freddie James Hodgson, in another Yorkshire parish church, and the day after that Sarah and I attended a preview of an art exhibition in a third Yorkshire church. I'm pretty sure that's the only time in my life I've attended church three days running.

The exhibition, called Going and Returning or Arriving and Leaving (Itus et Reditus), and staged at All Souls Church and the Bankfield Museum in Halifax, brings together work by Pam Day, Jonathan Adamson and the outstanding Andrew Darke. It's well worth catching, if you can, for Andrew Darke's work alone. It runs daily from now till Sunday and then on Saturdays only to July 18. The Bankfield Museum part is open from now till July 18 (except on Mondays). Opening times at both sites Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 1pm to 4pm.

Now then (not in the Yorkshire sense, ie as a greeting synonymous with "hello there"): Bob Dylan's Together Through Life.

I've played it over and over and over again, especially in the car, where it works far better, I find, than in the living room, and I've tried very hard to like it. So I'm sorry to report that I think it a very poor album, its main appeal being that it's not Modern Times, and, ipso facto, refreshingly unportentous.

That doesn't make it good, though. The writing is so careless that it's astonishing it took two people to come up with it and that neither said "Hang on a minute, we can do a whole lot better than this", and the voice - the shot voice that was used so skilfully on "Love and Theft" - is mostly inexpressive, and where not, it mostly tries on sham or crudely cheap emoting. The music is plodding, the tunes dull and any sense of a need to communicate wholly absent.

Of course Bob Dylan is fully entitled to turn out as many meaningless albums as he likes, but I'm entitled to feel, as I do in this case, that if such albums didn't exist, it simply wouldn't matter. I don't really care if I never hear Together Through Life again. And it says something about how steep the decline in Dylan's work has been in the 21st Century that I can feel that way without also feeling deep shock at finding it so.

It seems popular to say that this is a minor Dylan album on a par with, say, Nashville Skyline: but Nashville Skyline was radiant with beautiful vocals, sparklingly deft individual musical playing recorded with shining clarity and an unmistakeable generosity of good humour and vitality. It is a towering achievement alongside the shoddy sludge of Together Through Life.

Far too many people, in my opinion, have rushed to try to find the album full of artistic virtue and insight about the human condition. People always do - like the idiots who come out of a contemporary Dylan concert and declare that he's never sounded better live. It's desperate self-delusion, and if Bob gets told this stuff himself, no wonder he's content to offer so little.

In 'Unbelievable', on Under The Red Sky, he sings a great truth, if you apply it to his own fans and how we behave. He sings:

Turn your back, wash your hands,
There's always someone who understands
It don't matter no more what you got to say

... or indeed if you've got nothing to say at all. And as the last line of that song has it:

It's unbelievable it would go down this way.


Blogger Judas Priest said...

Interesting if imo very harsh comments Michael on an album that certainly is by no means a classic but on the other hand to my ears remains a hugely enjoyable listen. I have it way ahead of Nashville Skyline and New Morning (nice albums that they are) and place it in the same ball park overall as L&T. While I agree the writing is careless in places and not as witty or skilled as L&T, the album still has enough about it to compensate. The music to me is far from plodding.In fact, I would regard it as vibrant and full of life-at least as much as L&T and perhaps even more so. There is a ragged charm to proceedings and in the case of This Dream of You, a modern day classic that hits home every time. Quite quite beautiful. While the rest of the songs don't hit that meteoric high, and there are bits in some of them that could have been improved with a lyric change here or a vocal dub there, I don't dislike any of them. A welcome addition to the canon for me and I suspect an album that will be fondly regarded by the majority in the long run.

3:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nah, it's a great album, don't be so hung up on words. Words are so yesterday. Feel it.

5:27 pm  
Blogger Nigel Hinton said...

Of course, you're totally right about the album - it's not fit to lick the boots of even a (minor?)work like Nashville Skyline. And I admit that I was initially guilty of liking it more than it deserved simply because it wasn't as phoney as Modern Times. I am still pleased that it isn't as toe-curlingly smug and artificial as that album, and I do have a very soft spot for This Dream of You.

6:59 pm  
Blogger Stuart Doyle said...

Firstly i want to say how much i enjoyed the Poetry and Art of the Blues session in Maidstone - i was surprised to find you on my doorstep ("took an untrodden path once"). Hearing the "Blind Willie McTell" alternate version was joy enough, not to mention the analogue blues songs. Trying to get you to respond to my defence of "Dark Eyes" was interesting too!

I find myself however responding in a quite different way to "Together Through Life", and it's an odd thing that having agreed in general terms with your assessments of Bob's albums for most of the decades, particularly the 60's and 70's, that i seem to diverge completely on the last decade or so. To me "Modern Times" is the best of the bunch - Workingmens Blues #2, Ain't Talkin, Nettie Moore, worth their place on any generation of Bob's output, while "Love and Theft" is the one i find most artificial and formulaic, and consequently play least if at all. I prefer "Time out of Mind". "Together Through Life" seems to me to be musically upbeat and enlivening, and reasonably diverse. I agree the lyric content is deliberately simple, but i don't find it ringing false, or anymore false than the jokerman's output for many years. Not so much "Nashville Skyline" as maybe an "Old Evening" to the "New Morning" it's been coupled with on the sales front. I find it disarmingly attractive (or is that irritatingly memorable - e.g. If you ever go to Houston). It's almost jaunty, and sounds like Bob enjoyed making it. And that's at least something. Far too much adulation and hype, yes indeed, but it will settle down to a decent minor position in the canon. I'd rather have it than not.

Hope there's more Blues related books or tours to come, in due course?

9:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your conclusions about TTL. I too have listened to it in the car (where I can give my full attention) and feel it to be one of BD's minor albums.

10:54 pm  
Anonymous John Carvill said...

How I wish I could disagree, even a little. Funny enough, I found the album plays well in the car also. I find myself wishing Bob had stopped with 'Love & Theft'. What are the chances he'll now produce another worthwhile album? Somehow, that prospect seems more remote now than it did back in the mid-90s, before Time Out of Mind. Sad. Still, although you'd have to be on hallucinogens to come out of a Dylan concert these days and declare his current performances his 'best', I found recently - at Liverpool - that being there, in a good mood, with good seats, it was still thoroughly enjoyable, and whatever the ruined wrecked state of his voice, he wasn't going through the motions.

12:38 pm  
Anonymous 4thTimeAround said...

While completely respecting your opinion, Michael, I have to disagree. I too have been playing TTL in the car, where it sounds great. But I appreciate it much more when I play it at home, with the lights turned down and a glass of my favourite red wine to hand. It is a very atmospheric album. I hear 50s nostalgia, joyous TexMex border vibe, profound melancholic regret for loves found and lost, a fair dose of pain and lots and lots of wry humour.
I agree that it can't be compared with Nashville Skyline or New Morning, but only because such comparisons would be ridiculous. Those albums were back then, a very different time and place, and a much more innocent Dylan. The only common element, perhaps, is a feeling of being at peace with oneself. But back then, it was the contentment (relief?) of a young man who had walked through a firestorm, and emerged more or less intact. In TTL, the inner peace stems from a kind of resignation and acceptance of both personal limitations and a world gone very wrong. There is a world-weary wisdom here that couldn't possibly have informed the earlier albums.
It is far too early to attempt to rank this album in relation to Dylan's overall output, but I feel sure it will not be dismissed as insignificant, and it may even be hailed as a remarkably articulate expression of where the nearly-70 years old Dylan found himself towards the end of the crazy opening decade of the 21st century.
If I had to pick one song that sums up what TTl is all about, I would opt for 'It's All Good'. It takes a lot to laugh, but it takes a lot more to be able to sing that song with a straight face.
By the way, having heard 'If You Ever Go to Houston' at the two Dublin shows, I can't wait to hear more of these songs in concert.

5:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now don't be shy Michael tell us what you really think.
Kidding aside I give you credit for trying hard to like the album.
I can't even imagine myself trying to like anything let alone working hard at it.
I'm not surprised by your comments and mean no umbrage in saying I like the record a lot. Many of the things you mention I'd not perhaps so much disagree with, but view through a different prism. Dylan is an old man now. We can't expect him to have the same concerns and ideals as a younger man. There is bound to be disillusionment and acceptance, cynicism, weariness, phlegm. The record I think likely perfectly expresses what Dylan is now, and I don't expect anything more from him than what he's got. Pat Ford

10:44 pm  
Anonymous 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain said...

Good heavens what's not to like about the album?

Beyond Here Lies Nothin' gives us some wild lyrics, musically somehow threatening, and concepts that could only be Dylan. Is he talking about Death? is he talking about the rest of the album?

Life Is Hard is sweet and tender.

The Charming If You Ever Go to Houston. I would love to be Bob's pal, so would you.

It's All Good is a perfect bookend to Beyond Here Lies Nothin' speaks to life, speaks to the album.

Forgetful Heart like the best Bob makes one think about Life and Love.

And This Dream of You as cited, is
a beautiful complex song, with it's coupled opposites, "seeing but don't want to see", "believing but I don't want to believe" etc.

Add some rocking rollicking blues and it recalls some earlier albums, Bringing It All Back Home being one.

The comparison to Nashville Skyline comes because Bob is
working in a genre,here tex-mex.

4:27 pm  
Blogger Judas Priest said...

And while i may have averred to some careless and simple writing earlier on, I should perhaps have equally stated that there are some really fetching lines dotted around the album. The "mountains of the past couplet" in Beyond Here, the last line of Forgetful Heart and pretty much the entirety of This Dream of You springs to mind but there are quite a few more. Not a lyrical masterpiece by any definiton but it would be a mistake in my view to dismiss the writing on the album notwithstanding some clunky and overly convenient rhyming here and there. The album has a very definite something to it...a ballsy, of the moment momentum that leaves an authentic signature.

7:08 pm  
Blogger Seth said...

Well, everybody has their own opinion,and that's fine. You don't actually say very much about the album, other than that the writing is careless, the voice is inexpressive, and the music is plodding. You could probably have done without comparing people who find "artistic virtue" in the album to "idiots". Really, I've read your work for many years, and quite enjoyed it. But judging by this review I don't think you're in any position to be describing somebody else as suffering a decline with careless writing lacking any need to communicate.

Personally, I am enjoying the album, although it's certainly no masterpiece. I thought the review here
was pretty on-target.
I am glad the Dylan catalog now contains "Life is Hard" and "This Dream of You". But whatever. I really have no desire to defend the album. What I find amazing is your comments about this album in comparison to other minor Dylan albums over the years. You found things to appreciate (and in a very interesting way) in under the red sky, and if I recall right, (this is from memory), you described Self Portrait as a "mistake" which could have been a decent single album. And this album is "sludge" while you went absolutely bonkers over the sludgiest album Dylan has ever released, Street-Legal.

Please. If "Peggy Day" is an example of shimmering vocals recorded with shining clarity and a desire to communicate that is lacking in Life is Hard, then there is really no point in reading your writings about current Dylan.

2:54 am  
Anonymous AVS said...

For me the great thing about Bob's later albums is that he's writing "his age". Not trying to recreate his previous triumphs. Of course a near 70 year old isn't going to have the flashes of insight or originality that a 24 year old will but that's not what I want. TTL is an album by a man who seems to have come to terms with the fact the world is both wondeful and awful, and he reflects this in ways that are both funny and heartbreakingly sad. "This Dream of You" like "Girl from the Red River Shore" is a wondeful depiction of what it must be like to look back on a lost love from a younger time. What more do we want from an artist than that he tells us what is world is like (whether we like that world or not).

4:12 am  
Blogger Brent White said...

Unlike some people, I tried to dislike TTL but can't. Yes, it's slight but perfectly entertaining--fun, in fact. (The recurring riff in "Jolene" is slightly annoying, but whatever.) It's difficult to take any Dylan album on its own terms, without comparing it to the album we _wish_ he'd made. As Dylan said in one of those recent interviews, he and Robert Hunter could have written a hundred of these songs if they needed to. And I'm sure they could have! These songs are unpretentious in the extreme. They have a nicely tossed off feel. It takes a lot of talent to achieve that.

4:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Look at Dylan as a private detective. In his youth he was the mercurial Sherlock Holmes ( who wasn't nearly as old in the Doyle books as Arthur Wontner.). Full of vigor and enthusiasm, not to mention cocaine.
Now he is Hammett's Continental Operative. Aging easily winded, cynical and world weary, still capable of a well timed punch, and with an even better knowledge of the whole truth. Knowledge that it doesn't respond to platitudes, and it might even be ugly. There is no use thinking you're going to save the world or even the day, but you might save yourself. Pat Ford

5:59 am  
Anonymous PaulC said...

TTL is a disappointing minor work. Forgetful Heart and This Dream Of You are the most engaging songs and Its All Good is the low point. It is an enjoyable album and has some superb vocals,good tunes and some inspired guitar driven playing. I disagree with the view that 21st century Dylan is redundant. Modern Times is a great album and in my view exceeds the wonderful L&T. The soundtrack songs are good and the Tell Old Bill sessions are a revelation. Dylan in concert cannot live up to the younger Dylan - what performer can - and yet there have been great concerts throughout these years: the 2003 London concerts and the 2002 concerts with the heartfelt Warren Zevon covers. What other performer would or could offer such riches ? I honestly feel that you overstate the hype and showbiz elements in relation to modern day Dylan which compared again to other similar artists are minor. I was fortunate enough to hear him perform a wonderful heartfelt Something in Liverpool.....which other artist would not perform one song from an album which is number one on both sides of the Atlantic ?

2:19 pm  
Anonymous Bev said...

I must admit I like it... I don't LOVE it (unlike, say, TFWBD, BOB, BOTL, TOOM) and I hate the sequencing (first three tracks are the worst). It is a throwaway album, in the best sense of the word. I can see some truth in your critism Michael, but I'm sure I've read more positive things from you about Empire Burlesque - do you really rate it below that rubbish?(Not that I beleive in any kind of league table of Bob's albums.) Some of the lyrics I love, but I'm sure if I say which Michael will end up poiting out they're old blues rip-offs and not Bob originals!

8:56 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

PART ONE: First, thank you to all who sent in these comments.

Judas Priest: of course you can defend this as "by no means a classic but...", but to "have it way ahead of Nashville Skyline and New Morning" just cannot be. Every bone in my body protests at such a hurling away of the known universe. Every artist, dead and alive, who has ever striven for something hard and real - and every listener, reader and critic who has ever held out for the integrity of high standards - must have to howl in pain and bury the rag most deep in the face if we're to roll over into a world in which the cheap and careless weariness of Together Through Life is to be raised above New Morning, a minor album that grows better and better as time goes by and glows with carefully crafted and original songs, warm generosity, studio precision, absence of self-indulgent carelessness - and above all an authentic desire to communicate and an undiminished concomitant hope that there may be discerning listeners who will pay it attention and not merely rush to defend it regardless.

I'm with Nigel Hinton on this one... except that I can't even get fond of This Dream Of You (let alone find it a "meteoric high", JP). I just don't believe it. It's festooned with sly calculation instead of clear artistic sincerity. It's too close to the spirit of To Make You Feel My Lurve.

Which is why I can't agree with you, 4th Time Around, that TTL offers "profound melancholic regret for loves found and lost..."

Your argument that the earlier albums represent a young and therefore "innocent" Dylan is striking for its own innocence - that is, for a misreading of what artists can and must do. Surely there was nothing innocent, artistically, in the Dylan who created North Country Blues or Seven Curses in his pre-electric days, let alone Highway 61 Revisited or Desolation Row in 1965?

Similarly, if the Dylan of today was to offer an album that evoked honorably "a kind of resignation and acceptance of both personal limitations and a world gone very wrong", then Dylan would have to be bothered to craft it just as rigorously as if evoking any other human feeling. Seamus Heaney doesn't throw in any old couplet to evoke world-weariness. Nor does anyone who's trying their best, from Dante to Pope to Mary Gautier.

You say that "There is a world-weary wisdom here that couldn't possibly have informed the earlier albums" - but that's just what there isn't! Cheap world-weariness, yes: but it doesn't yield any wisdom because it hasn't been striven for. There's been no attempt to pin down specific truths, and no attempt to rub up against the discipline of the form until inspiration rises. Throwing in any old lines is not how art works. TTL is emphatically not "a remarkably articulate expression of where the nearly-70 years old Dylan [has] found himself towards the end of the crazy opening decade of the 21st century." Crazy Times are no excuse for Anything Goes. The 1960s were crazy times; Dylan produced great work - and it was great not least because it was more demanding of itself than other people's work, and because he held onto a ferocious integrity in his art, however swiftly written it was.

Which is why, AVS, I don't buy your claim that "TTL is an album by a man who seems to have come to terms with the fact the world is both wondeful and awful, and he reflects this in ways that are both funny and heartbreakingly sad." It may be by a man who accepts that "the world is both wonderful and awful", but Dylan the artist hasn't roused himself enough to create that world in song. He never comes close to creating anything "heartbreakingly sad" here. It's not real enough to be moving.

11:48 am  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

PART TWO: Seth, I refute the charge. You have to remember that this is just a blog. It's not a long critical essay, or a honed book chapter: it's just a blog and I was simply offering my informal opinion of the album. I'm reasonably certain that when I have written for real publication in the last three or four years there has been no decline in the standard of my work - and no decline in the standard I set myself. I think my entries on "Love and Theft", written in 2006, and, say, on The Other Side Of The Mirror, written in 2008, stand up alongside whatever else I've achieved. I also believe that my most recent book, Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes, extends the range of my writing and is work I can be reasonably proud of.

Finally, I want to say that I take no pleasure in being so negative about Bob Dylan's work. No pleasure at all. I especially don't like the tone of voice it seems to induce in me when I say so. But while there will always be "things to like" about any Dylan album (particularly if you're determined to) - I like moments in Beyond Here Lies Nothing and most of I Feel A Change Coming On - it is absolutely not possible for me, or for legions of other long-term Dylan devotees, to succumb to the current pressure to praise TTL as a fine minor album, any more than to roll over and agree that Modern Times was a fine major album, or to join the chorus of those who say his concerts are still superb. By the standards he himself set so sublimely over a very long haul, these lies posing as relaxed good-natured liberalities must be refuted, however pinched it sounds to be standing there doing the refuting.

Not refuting would be like agreeing that "hey, what's not to like?, Pam Ayres = Wordsworth", or that BBC TV has not dumbed down, or that Dick Cheney wasn't so bad. Or that it's all good.

11:49 am  
Blogger Judas Priest said...


Re New Morning, I'm quite fond of that album and agree it has aged well. When I first bought it (on tape in Dublin Airport for a measly 3 quid as I recall, it was bargain basement stuff in the early 90's and anything I had read about it at that time suggested it was an artistic failure and a prime example of Dylan faking it. It has enjoyed something of a critical comeback since as far as I can tell and as luck would have it, my wife should be picking up the remaster for me in town as I write this..) However, I can't really get beyond "fond" (nothing wrong with that mind) whereas TTL for me is at least a rung or two higher on the ladder without hitting the absolute heights.

The bottom line is I find TTL a far more enjoyable listening experience as a whole than New Morning (Or N Skyline while we're on it). These are a set of songs that don't necessarily need to be crafted and honed like literary works. This isn't an album designed to be admired from afar and then put in moth balls and left to gather dust. It's an album that screams out to be played and enjoyed for what it largely is-a stomping, foot tapping, warm,unpretentious, enchanting in its own way, 45 minutes of Bob and band thoroughly enjoying themselves. It's infectious. And while I am a big Modern Times fan, he has clearly learned from two criticisms voiced by some-these songs are musically far more robust and muscular and the songs themselves demonstrate an economy that was missing from MT. My suspicion is that this is probably Mr. Hunter's most significant contribution to the album. As for This Dream of You, I think it is much closer in "sly calculation" and "artistic sincerity" to a classic such as Not Dark Yet rather than a low like Make You Feel My Love.

12:33 pm  
Anonymous Stephen said...

Reluctantly, I have to agree with your comments, Michael. It's a bad album. It makes me cringe with embarrassment at times. Dylan's chuckles on a couple of tracks are so phony. 'My Wife's Hometown' sounds like the kind of song that might appear on a Budweiser advert. Maybe it will.

I haven't been able to listen to the whole album very much. 'It's All Good' is so incredibly boring that I usually quit before the end. My strategy now is to pretend the album never happened, and so I am still eagerly awaiting the follow-up to 'Modern Times'.

Perhaps it's unfair to blame it all on Robert Hunter. Just as I'm reluctant to concede that Jacques Levy wrote 'hot chili peppers in the blistering sun', I'm happy to think that Dylan didn't write 'Mister policeman, can you help me find my gal' and 'you can be my pal'.

It's hard to believe Dylan has written lines as bad as these. He writes stuff like 'went the wrong way into Juarez with Juanita on my lap', whereas Robert Hunter is the dullard who writes 'the sheriff's on my trail and if he catches up with me I know I'll spend my life in jail'. (I always hated it when Dylan sang Robert Hunter songs in concert; they're just so far beneath him).

Your point about 'Nashville Skyline' is well made. There's nothing 'minor' about 'Together Through Life'. It's just bad. For a Dylan fan, the so-called minor albums are where the fun should start: Self Portrait, Pat Garrett, Planet Waves, Shot Of Love, Under The Red Sky etc. It sounds so dismissive to call these or 'Nashville Skyline' or 'New Morning' minor.

And I've always thought that an album such as 'Freewheelin'' wouldn't have been so great without the 'minor' songs. The album is better with 'Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance' rather than, say, 'Let Me Die In My Footsteps'. It's about sequencing, making an album. The Beatles understood this too.

It's not been my favourite few months as a Dylan fan. The album stinks. The video for 'Beyond Here Lies Nothing' is hideous and indefensible. The concert I saw in Brussels had such bad sound that it was physically painful to listen. And he played seven songs that he played two years ago in the same venue with the same band. Five of these were also played the time before that.

I don't want to see all this as part of a narrative of decline. I still believe Dylan has the ability to surprise us all with something great. A good starting point would be not to play any of the new songs on the next tour.

12:50 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The people who are getting a bit excited, should give you more credit Michael. They seem to be saying he's doing the best he can, while you think he isn't putting in the kind of effort needed to do the kind of work you think he can still do.
Even the voice I'd guess you think could regain some flexibility if he'd lay off those spaghetti western cigarettes he smokes.
My own take is that it's all good (sorry for that).
Anyhow maybe the record should have been called "Blogging Through Life" as in, "It's just a Blog."

10:39 pm  
Anonymous 4thTimeAround said...

Many thanks for your considered response, Michael. I take your points on board. I still think TTL is an articulate expression of where Dylan finds himself now, and to my mind both the message and the mode of expressing it are entirely consistent with what he has had to say in recent interviews.

Who is to say what Dylan's 'best efforts' could produce at this stage of his career? He himself told Ed Bradley that he couldn't do 'now' (2004) what he did back in the early years, but he could do something different. Probably, even that 'something' has changed in the intervening five years. Certainly, the ageing process is evident in his live performances, even compared with a few years ago. Such is life!

I have sufficient faith in Dylan's own artistic integrity to accept that what he offers in TTL is what he (rightly or wrongly) believes to be the best he has to offer at this point in time. Some people accept the offering, and some don't. Nothing new in that! The same could be said of every single Dylan album since 1962.

Sometimes, I have found myself surprised by some younger Dylan enthusiasts' preference for latter-day Bob over earlier decades. Should I try to lessen their enjoyment by telling them about what they have missed by not seeing the man 'back then', when he was really at the top of his game? Of course not! They couldn't go back there anyhow, so the exercise would be pointless. Should I lessen my own enjoyment of a 2009 Dylan concert by filtering the experience through spectacularly vivid memories of five glorious nights in Earls Court, in 1981. Again, of course not! Either I accept that he continues to give of his best - croaky voice, lyric flubs and fragile keyboard playing notwithstanding - or I should save my money and stay away.

Similarly, I just try to accept what TTL offers on its own terms, and it continues to please. It certainly won't displace any of my personal favourite Dylan albums, but it doesn't have to.

3:07 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's to Michael Gray for saying what, I suspect, many people believe but are reluctant to say. Since Dylan gets a free pass on anything he does these days, it's easier for fans and critics to simply call Together Through Life "a pleasant late period Dylan album" rather than to label it what it truly is - his worst studio offering since Down in the Groove.
It's distressing to see Uncut automatically rank the album as a 5 star classic and Mojo give it 4 stars when the album doesn't even come close to being one of his best. (Although the American press has been less kind to the album - as one writer noted, you know a Dylan album is in trouble when Rolling Stone only rates it 4 stars).
I listened to the album about two dozen times when it first came out. I haven't played it for about two weeks now and I can barely remember any of it - "I Feel a Change Comin' On" stands out and "If You Ever Go to Houston" has decent accordion playing (although the song runs it into the ground). The rest is lazy, tedious and shoddy: "I am the King, and you are the Queen"?; using "mama" for the umpteenth time, not with warmth as on "It Takes a Lot to Laugh," but simply as part of a cheap, obvious title; cackling at the end of a song and having fans interpret it as profound humour.
As in his magnificant final chapter of Song & Dance Man III, Gray nails the big problem here - if people blindly hail everything Dylan does now as great, from his albums to his increasingly shoddy life performances, we can't expect the man himself to much care about improving the quality of his work. And for those who insist that Dylan doesn't listen to the press or give any thought to what others write, consider the quality of the songs and outtakes from Infidels and Oh Mercy - all written in the wake of critical drubbings for his previous albums.

7:57 pm  
Anonymous AVS said...

Thanks for the detailed replies. Two points: If "New Morning" improves with age then surely it's possible that "TTL" can as well? Secondly I think that you hit the nail on the head with the comment that you don't like your tone of voice when criticising Dylan. You do come across as slightly embitterd (I'm sure you're not but that's how it seems). Incidentally when "Song and Dance Man" came out it opened my eyes to not just other music but many other literary figures as well so I'm forever indebted for that.

8:58 pm  
Blogger Hugh said...

Michael, you frequently — even obsessively — attack Modern Times on this blog and elsewhere. Have you written a substantial critique of this album anywhere? I only recall a brief, dismissive paragraph, perhaps in a recent edition of one of your books.

Without this, it's wearying having to endure so many unsubstantiated snipes at an album I don't have a problem with myself. If a detailed critique exists, however, that's entirely my own fault.

You recently labelled Modern Times 'portentous'. I would like some elaboration, because to my ears, Dylan seems to delight in his very casualness for much of the album, and the songs more often than not exhibit good-humour. Now, someone who takes a pair of tweezers to the lyrics might emerge with something sloppy — something that doesn't stand up very well when commanded to do so. Or they might emerge with a Frankenstein's monster which stands up too well. Well, I don't find that approach befits Modern Times, most of whose songs seem to have been written in a consciously loose, line-by-line type manner, ideas bouncing off ideas, clichés in tact and twisted, phrases stolen and alluded to, and rhymes revelled in. It sounds a lot like Dylan is comfortable, doing what he wants — and having something of a good time. I don't believe it's down to him being too lazy to put in the amount of work required to get a positive write-up in, say, Song and Dance Man IV. In fact, when it's as engaging as it often is on Modern Times I see little reason to complain about what might have been.

I can understand why you think the music is boring and uninspired, but again I disagree, and the more I listen, the more I disagree. My father, who took a long while to warm to the style of "Love & Theft" after the darker, more fashionable style of Time Out of Mind, now really enjoys the subtle but lively musicality of Modern Times, as do I. Of course, such things are too subjective to warrant argument.

In comparison, I find Together Through Life, after a couple of listens, duller musically, with one or two exceptions, and with stripped-bare lyrics seemingly intent on aprofundity. Songs of form, really. But I don't regret having it.

I don't buy into the ridiculousness of immediately trying to rank this as a 'major' or 'minor' work and comparing it, favourably or unfavourably, to past 'minor' works.

Where Dylan's recent work is concerned, I find myself more aligned with the critic who can sniff portentousness at fifty paces, Robert Christgau, who reviews Modern Times here.

A quote from his review of "Love & Theft": "All pop music is love and theft, and in 40 years of records whose sources have inspired volumes of scholastic exegesis, Dylan has never embraced that truth so warmly."

Anyway, I hope none of this comes across as mean or defensive. I hope, too, that I didn't lose sight of the fact that we're merely of two different minds on this. While I'm not always comfortable with close-text analyses of Dylan's work, Song and Dance Man is a tome I love having in my bookshelf and would never wish to part with. The measure of the critic is in inspiring this sort of discussion, and it's a pleasure to have the opportunity to put in my cents.

7:18 am  
Blogger Seth said...

Thanks for your comments, Michael. I appreciate the restrained tone of your
comments considering I was a bit
sharp in mine. That said, most of your comments are at such a level of vagueness that there's not much to add besides "I like it - I don't". What I've always liked about your writings, even when I disagreed with your opinions of certain songs and albums (which was pretty frequently, actually) was that you were able to make me think about songs and appreciate them in a different way, or gave some insights into *why* a song was affecting me. That's really very rare in writing about Dylan. And so, yes, your comments about TTL (and Modern Times) seem to me nothing but name-calling. You're sort of becoming the flip side of Paul Williams.

It is always surprising how people, even within the fairly small community of Dylan fanatics, react to material in different ways.
Stephen comments in particular about the line "Mister policeman, can you help me find my gal" and how bad it is. For me, that's one of my favorite lines on the album, not because of the line itself, but because of how he sings it. I actually woke up this morning thinking "I need to hear that song again". Maybe I'm crazy. I also think Modern Times is a really good album, and I also think the Prague 1995 concerts are absurdly overrated.

4:53 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No one should be surprised by the diversity of opinon in relation to the works of Bob Dylan - or any other artist.Dylan fanatics are not a homogeneous group and surely the only opinion we tend to agree on is that he is an incredible singer. In my view the album is intentionally simplistic and the words a vehicle for the music.The album has a cohesive sound and texture obviously created by the accordion trumpet and accoustic guitars. Dylan has nothing to say on this album and his singing is therefore mostly inexpressive. I accept the album for what it is and I hope that he produces another album as quickly as he has done with TTL. I would prefer the next album to have songs of the calibre of Not Dark Yet, Highlands, Trying To Get To Heaven, Mississippi,Highwater, Workingmans Blues and Nettie Moor but accept that we may not get them.I feel that Dylan has reached a stage in his life when critical acclaim simply means nothing to him and he is more concerned with playing live with his band. The sound in Liverpool...especially during Something...was very good.

5:42 pm  
Anonymous Kieran said...

Remember Michael, you didn't like TOOM when it first came out.

TTL is musically vibrant and spontaneous is ways MT isn't. Forgetful Heart contains an all-time vocal. I dunno what your problem with Shake Shake could be - it's jaunty, almost throw-away while being compelling. He nails that tune in exact proportion to the way he missed it on Rolling & Tumbling.

Rolling & Tumbling is self-conscious and wholly derivative - it's almost scandalous, actually - but Shake Shake is a rumbling hoot. It's one song that once it starts, I have to listen the whole way through.

I don't understand what you mean about his "need to communicate." Not all communication needs to be of the same substance, nor should it all be at the same level.

You defended your own work against a similar charge, yet nobody's work is flatline the same each time. This album is more about the music and performance.

You sound like you're suspicious of Bob. I agree mainly about Modern Times - if I could see what you're complaining about.

Barring Nettie Moore, I tend to ignore that album..

Maybe this album sounds better in a car - like a lot of the best rock music. But come on, give the guy a break: he can't always write songs that will be studied in school.

Your blog-review sounded a bit like the geezers who wrote off the Gospel stuff: they just didn't get it, either...

5:15 pm  
Anonymous Daniel Paton said...

Hi Michael,

Sorry - arriving at this post a little late!

I'm not sure if you're happy for links to be posted in comments, but if you don't mind, my own review is here:

It was written in a hurry and there are still typos and grammatical errors I haven't found time to amend. Apologies for that.

I've really enjoyed reading your thoughts here and I must admit I'm beginning to feel even my own review was a bit generous.

I'm not sure about describing the music as 'plodding' - I just feel it never really takes flight or provokes any real feeling. There are some respects in which it is too polite and restrained.

Dylan is clearly trying to play the blues (and I have no problem with the sense of nostalgia for old forms) but it just doesn't seem to capture any real sense of the blues for me.

People seem to be praising 'TTL' on the basis that Dylan sounds like he's 'having fun'. Well, of course he should! Any musician who doesn't enjoy making music should consider giving up. By itself, this is not enough for the grand claims of artistry.

There are a handful of wry and amusing lines. I like the opening of 'My Wife's Home Town' and parts of 'I Feel A Change Comin' On'. The problem is that these lines are so isolated and alone. 'My Wife's..' goes on to 'There are reasons for this and reasons for that/I can't think of any just now but I know they exist' - a horribly lazy, pointless lyric that just seems to some up the (lack of) spirit that pervades most of the record. There is no sustained thought, no developed themes and ideas and, as a result, no real meaning or insight.

There are songs that Dylan didn't deem worthy of proper release (Caribbean Wind, Red River Shore, Blind Willie McTell, Up To Me, Foot of Pride etc) that are in an entirely different league.

Unlike you, I quite like 'Modern Times' - and whilst I agree that it is 'portentous', it's delivered with knowing humour. 'Spirit On The Water' strikes me as a really beautiful song and 'Nettie..' and 'Workingman's Blues' are both far more touching and evocative than anything on 'TTL', in spite of their borrowed and cliched harmonic forms.

I'm still trying to like 'TTL' more but it doesn't even feel like it's growing on me. It's lovely to have David Hidalgo's accordian - but even that just seems to have been super-imposed on to the by now familiar touring band sound. It doesn't add anything to what now seems like a musical template.

I like the sound of Dylan's shot voice when he has something to say - it can sound cutting, guttural, savage or even surprisingly tender. When he has little or nothing to say, it sounds disinterested and detached, as is sadly mostly the case on 'TTL'.

6:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Grey, I respect you criticism of Bob Dylan. When my parents bought me Song and Dance Man III, the book was a treasure of Dylan analysis and history. I generally agree with your opinions regarding his music; I think your analysis of his career and his musi is correct. However, I believe you are being too hard on TTL. I don't think its a masterpiece by any means. But I do believe that Dylan achieves what he set out to accomplish with the album. I like all the songs. I don't think there are any additions to the pantheon, but I do believe that all the songs add to his legacy. I believe that the album is another "mask" that he has donned. In this case I like to think of a juke box in a foreclosed border town bar that someone has plugged in and turned on. The songs provide a feel for where the country and people are at this point in time: hurting financially, emotionally and spiritually, but still searching for something redeeming in this fallen world. Again, I don't believe this album is his best, but I do believe that it's a worthy addition to his body of work.

8:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of things I forgot to add to my recent post: one I also love your Dylan Encylopedia. (It's fun to open up at any place and start reading), two, I know Diamond Dave Whitaker (he took several classes from my Dad at SF City College). He's really a nice man. Third, even though I agree that Dylan's shows have suffered a decline (I can hear it on the cd's), I've enjoyed his recent concerts. Most recently, I saw him in Santa Rosa, Los Vegas and San Francisco in 2006 and I saw him at Paso Robles in 2007 (Santa Rosa and Paso Robles were especially good). I'm looking forward to seeing him in August in Stockton.

Thanks again for your books!

8:36 pm  
Anonymous Lee Morgan said...

It amazes me that people can try to categorise this album with Nashville Skyline. While that was a comparatively minor album in the context of what came before, it remains a classic of the country genre; one with carefully considered lyrics, rich vocals and beautiful melodies. Together Through Life has none of these things. On Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s focus and enthusiasm engages totally and, even though it’s forty years old, the bristling musicianship is light years ahead of the dreary, listless playing on his latest release(s).

People argue that the ½ hearted nature of Together Through Life is a reflection of old age– the sound of Dylan embracing his mortality. If embracing his own mortality means lazy song writing wouldn’t we much rather he embraced his earlier genius? I have never found this argument particularly convincing anyway. It is an apologist’s stance that allows people to apply four stars to shoddy work and always seems slightly desperate to me, as if people are so desperate to hear a great new Dylan album they convince themselves that they're doing so.

It is also slightly condescending (old age = a total pervasion of cynicism and dearth of good humour) and disregards the fact that, eight years ago, Dylan gave us a work that embraced old age and harked back to the finest qualities of his greatest masterpieces. Old age need not mean an end to insight and enthusiasm. “Love and Theft” proved that decisively.

His current sloppiness is an issue in concerts too. Leonard Cohen at seventy-four, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits at fifty-nine, they approach their concerts with the same vigour they have always done; understanding that the audience exists to be engaged, not ignored.

Dylan could take a lesson from these men, reducing his touring schedule, resting his voice and performing selected dates with renewed energy and focus. Staying on the road might be a romantic concept for him, but for the fans, buying overpriced tickets for bland and often incomprehensible performances is not.

Sadly this is unlikely to change, with Dylan seemingly in a state of denial with regard his touring band:

“My band plays a different type of music than anybody else plays. We play distinctive rhythms that no other band can play. As far as I know, no one else out there plays like this: today, yesterday and probably tomorrow. I don’t think you’ll hear what I do ever again.”
-Rolling Stone interview, May 14th 2009.

Is he really so sheltered from criticism that he believes this?

2:55 pm  
Blogger Michael Gray said...

Lee Morgan (presently the latest comment contributor): I agree with you so completely, and so strongly welcome the articulate sanity of what you write that I am copying your words onto a new blog entry. I thank you heartily - and I know many other longterm Dylan afficionados who will feel as grateful as I do.

12:04 am  
Anonymous Christopher Rollason said...

Michael, as you know I essentially agree with you, and, yes TTL's perhaps only major virtue is that it's not MT - and yes again, if this album is a second NS, indeed it's an inferior one. Can't he do better than 'life is hard/without you near me'? Life IS hard with Bob so far away from us ...

3:07 pm  

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