Together Through Life, the album just released by Bob Dylan, has entered both the U.S. and U.K. charts at the number one position, and is at or near the top of the charts in numerous other countries across the world. Dylan appears to be doing something very right, in commercial terms, at the ripe old age of 68, but I question whether even he has any firm idea of what that might be. One thing for which he doesn’t get much credit, but which I think has paid off for him in the end, is his consistency. The curious thing is that his kind of consistency has often been portrayed instead as a mysterious and chameleon-like series of transformations, perhaps largely because of a failure by commentators to grasp the nature of the steadiness at the core of his work. Average listeners may well appreciate it better than the storied rock critics who have filled shelves with books on his songs and his various phases and incarnations.
I think that his consistency extends to his tastefulness (in musical terms), his instinct for spontaneous and dynamic creativity in the studio, and his particular way of looking at the world in his songs. Although all of these qualities are apparent on the new album, it is the latter one that is perhaps the easiest to contemplate in print.
In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone magazine – following some skeptical remarks about globalism and world peace – Bob Dylan said the following:
But none of this matters, if you believe in another world. If you believe in this world, you’re stuck; you really don’t have a chance. You’ll go mad, ’cause you won’t see the end of it. You may wanna stick around, but you won’t be able to. On another level, though, you will be able to see this world. You’ll look back and say, “Ah, that’s what it was all about all the time. Wow, why didn’t I get that?”
The sentiments Dylan expressed in that quote twenty-five years ago are presented in another way in the final track of his new album, the caustic and darkly humorous song It’s All Good, which careens along with visions of crumbling buildings and suffering citizens punctuated by that dumb modern catchphrase that caught Dylan’s ear:
The widows cry, the orphans plead / Everywhere you look, there’s more misery / Come along with me babe / I wish you would / Y’know what I’m sayin’ / It’s all good!
The perspective is essentially the same as in that old interview. This worldly existence is enough to drive you mad, if that is all in which you have to believe. The singer can laugh, in a certain sense, because, while transfixed on the misery, he is at the same time looking through and beyond all that. And the songwriter who has filled his work with canny biblical references going way back to his question about “whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side” is still doing it, albeit obliquely here. Widows? Orphans? That’s not the kind of thing you hear a lot about on CNN, but it sounds very much like the concern and language of Old Testament prophets. It’s all good? And God saw that it was good. The modern expression is illustrated as being off-hand, heartless and yet an oddly profane echo of God’s own truth from the Book of Genesis. The song is funny, acerbic and at the same time true in a sense that resonates beyond any headlines of the day. In other words, just like Bob Dylan at his best, in any decade you care to consider. Consistency.
Bob Dylan still hates that “think global” mindset, as was revealed in his latest Rolling Stone interview with historian Douglas Brinkley, where he is described confronting President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, backstage at one of his concerts, with his hopeful question as to whether “the whole global thing” is over, now that bail-outs and stimuli are the order of the day. The interview also “reveals” other consistencies about Dylan that some appreciated all along, such as that he deeply loves this country called America, and that he simply declines to take partisan sides in the contemporary political world (specifically refusing to criticize President Bush for the financial meltdown or anything else, and even defending him to an extent).
In what most critics would consider his glory-days of the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan saw and sang of a world where “drunken politicians leap,” where “infinity goes up on trial,” where Jack the Ripper sat “at the head of the chamber of commerce,” and where “goodness hides behind its gates.” And much more besides, brilliantly expressed in a style that owed some to the beat poets, some to older influences, and was framed by white-hot rock and roll music that burned through that crazy decade and still smokes through the stereo speakers today. But as much as they at turns poignantly and hilariously illustrated the insanity of modern existence, his songs of that era never descended to nihilism. The whole nutty, seemingly meaningless panoply of yellow railroads, geeks and postcards of the hanging present nothing in the end if not one big interrogatory statement: “There must be something more than this, right?” The answer may be blowing in the wind, but that also means that there is an answer.
Together Through Life contains numerous songs of love: a love that frustrates, a love that breaks the heart and yet a love that endures. The songwriter who wrote (29 years ago) that “to search for love, that ain’t no more than vanity” seems nonetheless to be focused upon a love genuinely worth pursuing, in lines like these:
Forgetful heart / We laughed and had a good time you and I / It’s been so long / Now you’re content to let the days go by / When you were there / You were the answer to my prayer
Using romantic love as a metaphor for the love of the creature for his Creator, and vice-versa, is a conceit at least as old as the Song of Solomon, and it is on this level that Dylan’s latter-day songs of love resonate most deeply, and, plainly-speaking, make the most sense.
The songwriter who has always used the Bible as his fundamental touchstone knows well the first and most important commandment, as given in chapter six of Deuteronomy: Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. In a tune so soulful and bouncy that it could be done to great effect by a group like the Temptations, called I Feel A Change Comin’ On, Dylan sings:
Well I’m lookin’ the world over / Lookin’ far off into the East / And I see my baby comin’ / She’s walking with village priest
For all the sadness, yearning, and dark humor on this album, Dylan, as always, does not present himself as a man without hope. He’s just investing it where he feels it rightfully belongs. In that, as in much else, he’s a model of consistency, and the music that still flows from this tower of American song seems to be striking chords with more listeners than ever before.
[Originally published as “Bob Dylan: Keeping It Together” in The New Ledger]