Entertainment behind the scenes
Bob Dylan achieves a dubious milestone with his first album in three years, an intriguing mix of Chicago blues, Tex-Mex and humorous balladry.
“Together Through Life,” which hit stores this week, marks the first time the noted wordsmith has worked with an outside lyricist on the bulk of an album since 1976′s “Desire.” Back then, theater director Jacques Levy co-wrote such tunes as “Hurricane” and “Romance in Durango” — whose southern-fried elements coincidentally echo through the new disc.
This time, Dylan has reunited with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. They previously partnered on a pair of songs for Dylan’s 1988 album “Down in the Groove,” an unloved project described as “catastrophic” by Blender magazine. (Dylan and the Dead have a patchy history. After touring together in 1987, they released the universally reviled live album “Dylan & the Dead.” Following the 1995 death of Grateful Dead frontman and Dylan pal Jerry Garcia, the Dead’s bereft legions of tie-dyed hippies started infiltrating Dylan’s shows.)
Since Dylan kicked off his latest comeback with 1997′s “Time Out of Mind,” which came out months after he suffered a potentially fatal heart infection, it’s been hard to get critics to say anything bad about him. Of course, “Time out of Mind,” which won the Grammy for album of the year, and its successors “Love and Theft” and “Modern Times” marked his strongest trilogy since the 1975/76 combo of “Blood on the Tracks,” “The Basement Tapes” and “Desire.”
But the new album seems to have left some critics a little uneasy. In an otherwise glowing review, Rolling Stone said the lyrics “seem dashed off in spots, like first drafts.”
Canada’s National Post also was troubled by the lyrics, complaining that the album “depends too heavily on a set of stock imagery about lonely Southern towns and attractive but ‘sinful’ women, and the trademark zingers and barbed metaphors are offset by disappointing filler.”
The New York Times, which gave Dylan his first major piece of ink in 1961, said “very little on ‘Together Through Life’ seems destined for his repertory’s long haul.”
Critics in Britain, where Dylan is in the middle of a tour, were considerably more enthusiastic. The Times said the album is “a welcome addition to the late-period Dylan catalogue.” Mojo magazine, which regularly runs massive dissections of Dylan’s career, said the album “gets its hooks in early and refuses to let go.”
The Guardian, was a little more restrained, saying there are “many great things” about the album, but “If a band in a pub started playing the ploddy blues of (the Dylan original) ‘Jolene,’ you’d tut and talk over it.”
Yusuf Islam, the British folk singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, has largely shunned the pop-music grind since he converted to Islam in the 1977 and devoted his life to his family and his faith.
But he is starting to dip his toe back in the waters, releasing his first mainstream album in almost 30 years in 2006 and playing his first concert in 28 years in 2007. He returns to stores next week with a new album, “Roadsinger,” and will play a handful of intimate shows around the world to promote the release.
First up is a May 3 stop at the Highline Ballroom in New York City, followed by a May 3 show at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Each venue holds about 700 people.
Islam, now 60, last toured in 1976. After converting to Islam, he slowly withdrew from his pop-star life, and finally hung up his guitar after a London show in 1979.
In a 2006 interview with Reuters, he said he planned to perform occasional concerts although his songs such as “Peace Train” and “Moonshadow” often lose their intimacy in big concert venues.
“Even though you’re singing in front of people live, you’re actually distanced by the stage and the whole presentation of music,” he said.