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RJ Eskow

RJ Eskow

Posted May 5, 2009 | 01:01 PM (EST)

Dylan's New Album: It's a Passport Photo


Guess what? Bob Dylan's moved on. His albums aren't transformational events anymore. Nowadays they're celebrations and echoes of the everyday working lives of a dying generation of American roadhouse musicians -- bluesmen and Tex-Mex balladeers, country singers, rockabilly madmen and crooning would-be paramours.

But if you've been listening to his last few albums you already know that. Together Through Life just confirms it.

Nothing on this album is going to burden Dylan with that troublesome "genius" tag. But then, nobody ever called any one of the Five Royales a genius either. Or Freddy Fender. Or Billy the Kid Emerson. But they were greats, and that's the company Dylan's keeping now. In fact, it seems as if Dylan would've been happy being part of the musical generation that came immediately before him -- the ones who had no hope for any but the cheapest, tawdriest, and most fleeting kind of fame. They weren't celebrities, except in their own ghettos or barrios or streetcorners. They were conmen and convicts, idealists and killers, Italian drunks, Jewish pimps, and mestizo gamblers. They were dreamers and addicts and hustlers who did a little performing on the side and turned out to be brilliant at it.

They weren't people Charlie Rose wanted to interview, if you catch my drift.

Like Nashville Skyline, this album feels like another attempted jailbreak from celebrity. It makes you want to wish him good luck with it, too. I wonder what it says under "occupation" on Dylan's passport. Probably not "poet" or "legend" or "voice of a generation." I get the feeling that it says what he wants it to say: "Musician." Or better yet, "working musician." The man tours all the time.

The album's on track to be Number One (if that matters anymore.) And he's on the cover of Rolling Stone (ibid). But mostly, the album's just there. Putting out albums is what working musicians do, and Dylan seems to be most in his element when he's fulfilling those job duties. Dylan's albums haven't changed people since Nashville Skyline made people "go country." What a relief that must be for a musician.

Nowadays Dylan's music doesn't do - it just is. Take it or leave it. The songs can't be laden with unintended meanings. They're not paintings, they're photographs -- like those great black and white pictures by Milt Hinton or Marty Stuart, where one great musician artfully captures another. In fact, "My Wife's Home Town" is so Willie Dixon ("I Just Want to Make Love to You") that the late Willie gets a cowrite credit.

There's no "Ballad of a Thin Man" on this record, so if you're still looking for that after all these years you'll be disappointed. But then, if you go looking for Jackson Pollack and find Robert Frank you'll end up disappointed too. And you'll miss some brilliance.

If you're a Dylan fan you've probably already heard that David Hidalgo's accordion runs through the record. That makes people think "Tex Mex." Some of the record is Tex Mex, too, although there's a lot more blues than anything else (and the accordion on those tunes is more reminiscent of Clifton Chenier accompanying Lightnin' Hopkins than it is of Flaco Jimenez.)

The blues numbers have a Chess Records feel, except for that accordion, even down to the same mambo-style rhythm on "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" that Chess used when they wanted a catchier and more danceable track. Here, producer Jack Frost (Dylan) goes for a brighter, clearer, punchier aural quality than those old Chess sides.

Dylan's still an archivist, and still a gentleman bandit too. "If You Ever Go To Houston" starts off as a light rewrite of "Midnight Special." That's okay: Working musicians are measured by the quality of the material they steal. But then again, can you steal an public-domain song? Dylan's simply continuing the folk evolutionary process. You can't sue for that. It would be like filing a copyright infringement case against the limbic brain. "Midnight Special"? What's more American than a prisoner's song that finds God's redemption on the headlight of a railroad train?

Speaking of Freddy Fender, it's too bad he's not around to cover "This Dream of You." There would be a sweet circularity in the Mexican Elvis singing this border-style ballad. And the words "nowhere café" echo a fairly obscure (and beautiful) Doc Pomus/Willy De Ville collaboration called "Just to Walk That Little Girl Home." That tune has a little Tex Mex in it, too. Maybe Willy will cut this song in Freddy's place.

"Life Is Hard" is an exception to the overall sound. It's a lovelorn ballad that might've been sung by Mabel Mercer in some long-gone cabaret. But then, "lovelorn" is a redundant adjective for these Dylan tunes. He's so perpetually out of love in this collection that it feels like Purgatory. He's looking at romance through a window, like a kid watching working musicians rehearse in a bar where he can't come in. He holds a woman now and then, but the way a lapsed Catholic holds a rosary.

The catchiest tune, "I Feel a Change Comin' On," kicks off with some swooping Rick Danko-style bass, one of the few echoes of The Band on this record. This one would be the "single," if singles still mattered. It's as close to a car radio song as we're going to get. And people who say Dylan's close-mouthed should take this kind of lyric more literally: "I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce." My guess is that's exactly what he was doing. (Hope it inspires more people to check out Billy Joe; he and I had a great talk a year or two ago.)

But what does it mean to say that this music just "is"? That's what all that original roadhouse music did: It just existed -- at least until all those college students started listening to it and writing dissertations about it. It was there to dance to, to get drunk to, to cry to... or to listen to if you really want. It's the kind of music that was once ubiquitous and unremarked upon -- in little record shops playing their hi-fi's on the city street, on transistor radios in the back seat, in the torn-up posters in the mouths of alleyways you don't dare enter, at the end of a barroom sweating under a few hot lights.

Okay -- but "is" it any good? Well, that all depends on what your definition of "is" is. The lyrics are brilliant, but in a sneaky kind of way. And nobody buys albums for the lyrics. There are no striking melodies, either, although Dylan's written far more of those than a lot of people recognize. It's not that kind of groove. It's everyday music, the poetry of the prosaic. If you want that other Dylan you're gonna need a time machine.

But it's a great album if you dig the Dylan of the last few decades, and if you love the music working musicians of his kind love. And else is going to sing "the door has closed forevermore/if indeed there ever was a door"? He's always been an underappreciated vocal genius, too, and now he's got the deconstructionist instrument to go with the stylings. The sound's not for everybody -- but then, neither was Furry Lewis.

The album won't change your life. But personally, my life doesn't need much changing. I didn't have to rush home to learn to play any of the tunes, either. But I know a lot of tunes already. It's like we were saying: These tunes are more like photographs than compositions. But maybe in the end they make up one big picture. And maybe it's not a work of art, but something more functional, like a passport photo of someone who's always on the road to the next gig. Somebody like Willie Dixon. Or Mabel Mercer. Or Bob Dylan.

A working musician.

RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

A Night Light
The Sentinel Effect: Healthcare Blog

Music writing is here.

He can be reached at rjeskow@gmail.com.