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From Isis magazine comes the following: It is now strongly rumoured that the new Bob Dylan studio album is to be called “Together Through Life”. The album will be released in three formats, Vinyl record, Single CD and a two-disc CD with bonus DVD. The release date is scheduled for the last week in April.

Michael Simmons from the Bob Dylan Community first heard of the possible existence of an album of new material on Dylan encyclopaedist Michael Gray’s blog on January 22. The rumor quickly made the rounds of Bobsites, forcing skeptics to point to the alleged April release date as proof that this was an April Fool’s joke. As recently as March 10, one naysayer posted on the New Yorker website that guesswork about the album’s title was “the strongest evidence there won’t be an album.” After checking with a friend of Bob’s who confirmed the rumor, arrangements were made with the appropriate gatekeepers. Drugged, blindfolded, and forced to switch transportation periodically, he awoke on a tropical island in a bamboo hut, sparsely outfitted with a lone stereo. Here’s what he heard:

1) Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ – A minor chord mid-tempo rocker. Like all the tracks and like Bob’s last two albums, it’s got a big, full, raucous, rocking sound, making the case that Jack Frost is indeed Bob Dylan’s finest producer since the ’60s and ’70s. Likewise, his voice packs a punch; not the thin, reedy instrument that occasionally detracts during live sets. He’s enunciating the lyrics with a fire and intensity we didn’t hear on Modern Times. Hidalgo’s soulful squeezebox is omnipresent here – and everywhere else.

2) Life Is Hard – The song that possibly buzzed his muse and encouraged him to write the others. “I need strength to fight that world outside,” and “I’m on my guard / Admitting life is hard / Without you baby” are lines that leapt out in a paean to the notion that two are better equipped to weather tragedy than one. A forlorn twinkling mandolin and mournful pedal steel accentuate the deep blue lyrics.

3) My Wife’s Hometown – Chicago blues has always been a huge influence on Dylan. From Bringing It All Back Home up through his most recent work, the ghosts of Chess Studios lurk inside the man from Minnesota. This one’s reminiscent of Muddy Waters’ I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love. Job loss is referenced (a topical theme, you may have heard), but Bob’s black humour is in cheeky abundance: “I just want to say that hell’s my wife’s hometown” and “I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone,” Bob sings and then laughs demonically at the end. Man, he’s enjoying himself.

4) Forgetful Heart – Lots of tunes in minor keys on this record, including this one. A neat banjo barely audible in the mix and one of The Master’s best lines ever: “The door is closed for evermore / If indeed there ever was a door.”

5) Shake Shake Mama – More Chi-town chugga-lugga. Some artists retreat to servile reasonableness and bourgeois banality as they get older. Not Bob. He got Las Vegas out of his system at Budokan. “I’m motherless / I’m fatherless / Almost friendless too,” he growls and you believe him.

6) I Feel A Change Coming On – Like Spirit On the Water from Modern Times, this one possesses a blithe jaunt and gorgeous melody. As in all his recent work, there are intimations of mortality (“And the last part of the day is already gone”) but there’s a devil-may-care wistfulness and a frisky sexuality in both lyrics and phrasing. Best lines: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver / I’m reading James Joyce / Some people they tell me / I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.”

7) It’s All Good – Propelled by a John Lee Hooker boogie rhythm with a stinging slide guitar, here’s Dylan taking on human woes: social, political, personal. He itemizes crimes ranging from “politicians tellin’ lies” to environmental illness (“a teacup of water is enough to drown”), urban degradation, murder and adultery and sarcastically and scathingly responds to each in the chorus with that hideous New Age cliché referenced in the title. More proof that Bob never really stopped writing “protest songs”.

Other song titles that he didn’t hear but have been mentioned elsewhere include If You Ever Go To Houston and This Dream Of You. Yet what he heard offered ample proof of an artist steeped in the past but thoroughly living in the present, cognizant of everything, not afraid to point fingers or laugh at fools or fall in love.

It’s a powerful personal work by a man who still thinks for himself in an era of fear, conformity, and dehumanization. That it rocks mightily makes the message even more compelling. Whatever the hell it gets called, it’ll be in the running for Best Album Of 2009.