Dylan Gets Romantic

For more than four decades, Bob Dylan's following has resembled both rapt children behind the Pied Piper and hellhounds on his trail: they can take any new direction in his work as a revelation or a personal affront. During a 1966 concert in Manchester, England, one fan's devotion to the early recordings with acoustic guitar moved him to shout "Judas!" when confronted with Dylan's full-on rock band. And then came the quasi-country albums, the cover albums, the breakup album, the white-jumpsuit period, the Christian period, the '80s rock period, the return to acoustic folk and the so-called comeback album "Time Out of Mind," followed by "Love and Theft" and, most recently, "Modern Times."

Like any other Dylan person, I've loved many of these changes immediately, come around to most of them and still trust that others will eventually make sense to me. A number of songs, I imagine, will always seem like grievous mistakes. But Dylan has educated my taste to the point where I worry about judging almost any song marginal: is he betraying his own esthetic, or am I betraying him with incomprehension? Besides, talk to 50 Dylan people and you'll get 50 different opinions as to what is marginal and what's canonical. One friend of mine thinks Dylan was just phoning it in on "Modern Times"; another still puts it on repeat play. They're both equally passionate about it.

On "Together Through Life," his 33rd studio album, Dylan has changed direction once again, and once again some fans may jump ship and some new people may come aboard. Both "Love and Theft" and "Modern Times" were surreal and nostalgic pastiches, appropriating words and music from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Merle Haggard, Bing Crosby, old blues songs and even Henry Timrod, the so-called poet laureate of the Confederacy. But part of Dylan has always resisted the "Dylanesque"—the seemingly random recombining of this, that and the other thing—and now, as on "John Wesley Harding" (1967) and "Time Out of Mind," he's turned toward simplicity. Relatively straightforward love songs, some co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, dominate "Together Through Life." The often trite lyrics ("Well life is for love/And they say that love is blind") sometimes take an inventive turn ("If you want to live easy/Baby pack your clothes with mine"). But only rarely do they veer off into the wild. "I'm a-listening to Billy Joe Shaver," he sings—we're still in the same song, "Feel a Change Coming On"—"and I'm reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me I've got the Blood of the Lamb in my voice."

That may sound like an outrageous self-compliment, but it's dead accurate. Dylan is singing at least as strongly as on any recent album, and if he generally sounds like a Man of Sorrows, he revisits his old ironic edge on "It's All Good," and on "My Wife's Home Town" he's got a folksy slyness we've never quite heard before, complete with a demonic chuckle. That song reprises Muddy Waters's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" almost note for note, with David Hidalgo's accordion taking over Little Walter's original harmonica part. The accordion, in fact, colors "Together Through Life" as decisively as Scarlet Rivera's violin colored the 1976 "Desire"; where she was fiery, he's appropriately world-weary.

"Together Through Life" grew out of its world-weariest song, the '30s-sounding Euro-café ballad "Life Is Hard," which Dylan wrote for a forthcoming film by the French director Olivier Dahan. How did Dylan get from there to the Americana of the rest of the album? Who knows? But it's usually his destination of choice. As on "Modern Times," he's appropriated the title of a country classic (here it's Dolly Parton's "Jolene," there it was Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues"); he's built another, "If You Ever Go to Houston," on a line from Leadbelly's "Midnight Special." There's not an unmistakably canonical Dylan song here— at least not according to my sense of what's canonical, which is eccentric enough to exclude "Forever Young" and to admit such oddities as "Po' Boy" from "Love and Theft." There's ultimately too little wildness playing against the triteness. But since "Feel a Change Coming On" is growing on me, I haven't hit my "Judas!" moment yet.