Time changes everything, a fact that has never been lost on Bob Dylan, a man who has seen fashions die, trends pass, young pretenders come and go and his own popularity rise and fall more than once in his near 50-year career. Indeed, rewind ten years and Bob Dylan was seen by most as a relic, yesterday’s man, a once great songwriter and poet who had been all but forgotten by today’s generation. And yet now, thanks to an award winning, and utterly compelling, Martin Scorsese documentary, a bestselling book, a hugely popular radio show and a trio of critically acclaimed albums it seems that against all odds Mr Dylan has found a place for himself in the modern cultural landscape. It’s an unlikely late-career bloom, but one that he has certainly been making the most of. To this end a new Dylan album, Together Through Life, is imminent and has Dylan-ites and critics alike wondering if he can keep the ball rolling.
And so as an aperitif to the main course we have the single “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”, and it’s fair to say that it carries a weight of expectation bigger than any Dylan release of recent times. A few years ago people were surprised that he could still make good records. Now, 2 grammys and innumerable plaudits later, he has something to live up to. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” almost does it too and, let’s get this straight, it’s certainly a long way from being the worst thing he’s ever done (see 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded album if you want Bob’s true nadir). However, compared to recent successes it does feel a bit underwhelming. Over a blues-y guitar, sprightly accordion and a vaguely latino shuffle (it doesn’t sound unlike Tom Waits actually) we get Bob, in his weathered croak of a voice, delivering a lyric which by his exalted standards is workaday at best. It’s this that probably disappoints the most. Many a time over the years, and certainly in recent times, has an unexceptional musical setting been saved by the kind of lyric most others wish they could produce and which it seemed Dylan could write over breakfast. Not this time. Lines like “Down the street there’s a window, a heavy window made of glass. Well keep on lovin’ pretty baby for as long as love will last. Beyond here lies nothin ‘ bout ‘ the mountains of the past” contain little of the mystery, of the colour and poetry that are his trademark. It’s not a tired sounding record exactly, but it definitely lacks a bit of spring in its step.
Maybe it was too much to expect that this was going to be something for a fan like myself to savour. And anyway, let’s get a sense of proportion here. As praiseworthy as Dylan’s recent output has been only the most ardent lover of his music would argue that it was up there with his very best stuff from the 60’s and 70’s. Yet as I mentioned there is a weight of expectation surrounding both this single and the album from which it comes, a weight that “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” doesn’t quite manage to carry.