Bob Dylan has given an interview about his forthcoming album, Together Through Life, and, in a typically playful, oblique way, he addresses questions of periodization and musical meaning: "Some people preferred my first-period songs. Some, the second. Some, the Christian period. Some, the post-Columbian. Some, the Pre-Raphaelite. Some people prefer my songs from the nineties. I see that my audience now doesn’t particularly care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed.... If there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it."
A couple of weeks ago I got to hear the new record, which the Columbia label is scheduled to release on April 28. I'm reluctant to say much after a single audition, but to my ears it was no letdown after Dylan's recent trilogy of new material — Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times. In the interview Dylan describes it as a "romantic" album, which seems about right, although this romance clearly has more shadows than flowers in the corners. The songwriting is more straight-ahead than on the previous two albums, which were stuffed — sometimes overstuffed — with verbal imagery. I kept thinking of Hank Williams's spare, chiseled writing, especially on "Life is Hard": "Sun is sinking low / I guess it's time to go / I feel a chilly breeze / In place of memories." (Note: what I heard may not match the finished work.) There's a fantastically chilling, end-of-one's-rope number called "Forgetful Heart," which has this Kafkaesque image: "The door has closed forevermore / If indeed there ever was a door." But the sadness of the scene is lightened by sweet-sounding arrangements (mandolin, accordion, and violin fill out the band) and by flashes of wit ("Down by the river Judge Simpson walking around / Nothing shocks me more than that old clown"). Some up-tempo, old-time rockers also keep the night terrors at bay.
The version I heard ended with the double whammy of "I Feel a Change Coming On" and "It's All Good" — a pair that may cause listeners to detect a political undertow in this seemingly intimate, out-of-time affair. The chorus of the gorgeously lilting, almost Motown-like "I Feel a Change" could be heard as Obamaesque, although with a certain ambiguous regretfulness Dylan adds, "And the fourth part of the day is already gone." (That's apparently a reference to the Book of Nehemiah.) A Dylan album can't end on such a half-hopeful note, of course. On the grimly boogeying "It's All Good," the singer dons a mask of lethal irony, surveying a ransacked social landscape and then adding, after each exhibition of desperation and decay, "It's all good." That smug little phrase has now been destroyed. Dylan's protestations in the latest interview notwithstanding, some people may indeed come away thinking that the human race is doomed, although at least we go out with a crooked smile.Previously: Ain't Talkin.
Update: Scott Warmuth proposes that "the fourth part of the day" is in fact taken from The Canterbury Tales — seemingly a favorite source for Dylan of late.