Bob Dylan has been on one prolonged roll for over a decade, ever since 1997’s lauded Time Out of Mind pulled the legend out of a similarly lengthy commercial and creative rut and reestablished him as a vital force in popular music. The quick take on Together Through Life is that the roll continues, the album finding the master in an especially giddy mood, every bit the grinning, sassing troubadour he’s played since Love & Theft, sometimes more so. Per usual, we critics and devotees will swoon, and those who just can’t handle the man’s voice will throw their arms up in wonder over all the fuss. But the long answer is that Together Through Life has nothing to do with camps or tribes or comment boards or best-of lists or anything of the sort.
Dylan’s latest mien has been to be an old-fashioned entertainer, blowing into town with his sturdy, stoic troop of pros, getting people on their feet and dancing, then drifting on again. It’s also been to satisfy his own ongoing relationship with the deep veins of American music that have inspired him throughout his life. The same spirit that tours minor league ballparks across the country, or positions himself on the side of the stage for an entire concert playing keyboards, no guitar, no banter, is the same one that never tires of mining 12-bar blues for new tricks, new joys. The long answer on Together Through Life is the songs. Do you like them?
Because, let’s face it, Dylan does not have to keep doing this. There is no force behind the relentless touring and occasional recording other than the man’s own will. He’s clearly enjoying himself on Together Through Life, his gleeful honk of a voice driving each number, from the smoky, plodding “My Wife’s Home Town” to the spry closer “It’s All Good”. One only need to listen to the first few lines of single “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” to hear that despite the additional layers of sandpaper coating his vocal chords, Dylan remains a consummate performer, imbuing each line with the aural equivalent of a knowing wink, a bat of the lashes, or roll of the eyes. “You’re the only love I’ve ever known / Just as long as you stay with me / The whole world is my throne,” he beckons, his vocal rhythm playing with and against the song’s mixture of blues structure and tango swing. On the next track, the album’s impetus “Life Is Hard” (written for French filmmaker Olivier Dahan’s My Own Love Song, and around which the rest of Together Through Life came together), Dylan pushes each out each word with deliberation, punching through the song’s crepe-paper delicacy.
In a break from the steely, urban feel of Modern Times, the album possesses a big sky and open country atmosphere thanks in large part to Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo’s Southern-flavored accordion, and warm, lightly reverbed production suggestive of vast, empty wood-floored dance halls, rather than tightly packed city clubs. With the exception of the bouncy, suggestive “Shake Shake Mama”, which sounds like a cross between recent up-tempo numbers “Cry Awhile” and “Someday Baby”, and the classic-sounding yet repetitive “Jolene”, the album’s songs are also more relaxed and breezy. The charming “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” gently swells on currents of organ and Hidalgo’s ubiquitous squeeze-box. “We’ve got so much in common / We strive for the same old ends / And I just can’t wait / For us to become friends” before suggesting that the object of his affection pack her clothes with his, and making the line “you’re as whorish as ever” sound like the sweetest of come-ons.
The muddy, banjo-peppered minor-key blues of “Forgetful Heart” is the emotional flipside to “I Feel a Change”, but both songs sound as if Dylan is singing as much to the sky as anyone in particular. That’s the challenge and joy of listening to new Bob Dylan records and trying to think about them: they’re like the weather, or elements, or wild animals, easy to have a wide variety of opinions on but ultimately impossible to deny. If older artists have a tendency to look backward and most young ‘uns to aim grasp at the future, Dylan’s gift has been to make hay of those distinctions and set himself apart from either generational trend. Together Through Life is reliable, steady, willing to give if you’re willing to receive. As Dylan himself put it in an interview with Bill Flanagan, “I know my fans will like it. Other than that, I have no idea.”