What Is Bob Dylan Laughing At?

Singing about love and loss, he still finds something to cackle about.

Click here to see a Magnum Photos interactive essay set to the music of Bob Dylan. 

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Bob Dylan has produced his first double-cackle record. In two different songs on Together Through Life, he rips out a little laugh at the end of a line. It’s not a giggle or a jolly guffaw. It’s a Vincent Price laugh. He’s slipped something in your drink.

It’s easy to see why Dylan is having fun. The record is a raucous indulgence for a musician who likes to hopscotch across genres. He pays homage to Chicago blues in several songs, but then he slips into alt-country. Next, he sashays along to a haunting Gypsy violin. At one point he gets funky.

It’s not a tedious indulgence. The playing is tight, and the songs are about a minute shorter than they have been on his last few records. He’s backed by his tour band and Tom Petty’s long-time guitarist, Mike Campbell. David Hidalgo from Los Lobos plays accordion throughout, staining each song the way the violin does on Desire. The feel fits Ani Difranco’s definition of a record as explained in one of her songs: “A record of an event/ The event of people playing music in a room.” It’s raw and organic with lots of little winks, both lyrical and musical—a pedal steel one minute, a collection of tight little guitar riffs the next. Wait, is that a banjo? This record is not, as Dylan said of modern music, “people playing computers.”

The music has a strong sense of place. The Chicago blues style sounds like the old Chess records, sure enough, but it also feels a little broken down. It’s the sound you hear in those blues documentaries when some forgotten legend plays on his busted back porch. But Dylan doesn’t stay in one place long. By the time you get to “If You Ever Go to Houston,” you feel like you’re in a cantina near the border.

The dirty guitar and accordion of the first track, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” would fit perfectly in the sweat and smoke of a dark roadside bar. That sound—minus the lonely trumpet—winds throughout the record along with the theme of love. For those who found “Beyond the Horizon” too schmaltzy on Dylan’s last record, Modern Times, in which the distant country contains love (maybe even God’s love), in this song, love is a more immediate and urgent break against uncertainty. “Don’t know what I do without it/ Without this love we call ours/ Beyond here lies nothin’/ Nothing but the moon and stars.”

Dylan says the new record has a “romantic edge.” This is a tough, battered love—lost, out of reach, painful. Yet the voices in these songs are clutching at it. “Life Is Hard” is a crooning parlor ballad of a chilly and barren world of lost love. “Forgetful Heart” starts with a little banjo plucking, which suggests a lightness (Steve Martin said no song sounded sad when played on the banjo), but soon a dark minor blues guitar riff enters and everything gets bleak. The singer’s heart is like a battered valise he carries even though it barely works any more. After trying to kick up pleasant memories of old devotions, he gives up and wonders if love was always just an illusion. “The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door.”

Dylan has written about love in all of its many forms, but there’s a greater sense of flickering finality in these songs. It’s a more specific form of the broader feeling of goodbye that’s been creeping into his records since Time out of Mind. In “If You Ever Go to Houston” he’s saying farewell, taking account. “Find the barrooms I got lost in/And send my memories home.”

Most of the lyrics were co-written with Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead lyricist, and they come off far better than their previous collaboration, which produced two forgettable songs on the 1988 album Down in the Groove. The only song Dylan wrote himself is “This Dream of You.” It’s another deeply atmospheric song with the drifty feel of “Romance in Durango” or “Mozambique.” Dylan sits in a world of shadows, in “curtain gloom,” clinging to the dream of a lost love in a fleeting world where everything he touches or looks at disappears. The dream sustains him, but if it came true, you get the sense it would disappear as he touched it. Tough spot.

But come back in off the ledge. It’s not all bleak. “Shake Shake Mama” is a spontaneous, boogying, uncomplicated love song. So is “Jolene,” where Dylan sings, “If you hold me in your arms things don’t look so dark.” She’s got powerful medicine. She can “make a dead man rise and holler ‘she’s the one.’ ” The upbeat “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” has a little echo of Motown, including a sunnier view of love, which Dylan makes intimate and easygoing: “If you wanna live easy/ Baby pack your clothes with mine.”

“My Wife’s Home Town” is a blues-in-D lark complete with familiar references to “gypsy curse” and “evil eye.” Sure, it’s about the burden of lust, but it’s just too fun to make anyone worry about much of anything. It’s such a copy of Willie Dixon’s “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” that Dylan gives him a songwriting credit (though Dylan’s sounds more like Muddy Water’s version of the song). That’s one of the cackle songs. The other is “It’s All Good,” a fiercely ironic destruction of the phrase that includes the menagerie of characters—corrupt politicians, a cold blooded killer, widows and orphans—that have populated Dylan songs for decades.

Finally, we must come to the battered business of Dylan’s voice. It’s the mess you’d expect but maybe even a little more banged up and stomped on since the last record. Sometimes it sounds like he’s lugging it over his shoulder, other times he bullfrogs a line or two, and sometimes it’s so rusty I want to mail him a can of WD-40. Fans trade messages on Dylan sites trying to puzzle out what he’s up to. Was he saying she’s “porous” or “whorish”? That would make a difference on the Valentine’s card. (He’s saying the latter and it’s a compliment.) It’s worth puzzling out because the trail of Dylan’s influences can be fun to follow. At various points he nods to Sun Tzu, Shakespeare, and Chaucer.

The confusion even reigns over an interpretation of a lyric about his voice. Does he have the “blood of the lamb in my voice,” as one reviewer guessed, or is it “the blood of the land”? Is he returning to his Christian roots or just his roots? It’s the latter, and Dylan’s voice, like that lyric, makes a kind of sideways sense. The voice tracks with the rough texture of the composition: It’s imperfect, clumpy, and cracked from drought, but it works. And, after all, Howlin’ Wolf’s voice was once compared to “the sound of heavy machinery operating on a gravel road.”

In “Song to Woody,” on his first record, Bob Dylan wrote to his idol Woody Guthrie that it would be presumptuous to pretend he’d been “hittin’ some hard travelin’ too.” It was a tribute but also part of Dylan’s eager yearning to do exactly that—to have the earned wisdom of having traveled down endless streets and avenues. He is that guy now. He’s lived that life and he’s reveling in it, even the brutal parts. Maybe that’s where the cackle comes from.