Review: “Together Through Life,” Bob Dylan

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There has been a lot of “news” surrounding the release of Together Through Life, Bob Dylan’s 33rd studio album: he wrote most of the songs with the help of sometime-Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter; Dylan recorded this album in somewhat of a hurry; and one song, “Life Is Hard,” is the fuse that lit this firecracker (Dylan wrote it for an upcoming movie and since he was in the mood, he cut the rest of this album).

Well, whatever.  Phone rings.  “Hi, Robert?  This is Bob.  Dylan, not Weir.  Hey, I was thinkin’, I want to record a new album in a hurry, and do you wanna write some songs with me?  OK?  Robert? Robert?”  I’m sure it went something like that, Hunter’s bootheels were a wanderin’ right to Dylan’s door before Bob had a chance to hang up.  Who wouldn’t want to work with Dylan?

And I gotta tell you, after all that news I didn’t expect Together Through Life to be any good.   But, like Neil Young’s Fork In The Road and even Bruce Springsteen’s Working On A Dream (two other recent efforts popularly reported as hurry-up jobs), Dylan’s new album is one that rewards repeat listenings.  On first impression you get an image of a tired old guy too burned out to write some new tunes: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” the album opener, recalls “Black Magic Woman,” while “My Wife’s Home Town” is a blatant rip of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want To Make Love To You,”  and so on.  And on first listen the ballad “Life Is Hard”  is definitely wince-inducing – what kind of movie is this for, some French art film?  (Uh-huh: Oliver Dahan’s My Own Love Song.)

But play ’em again and mysterious magic powers begin to take hold.  Dylan gives an extra sting to the punch line of “My Wife’s Home Town”  with a devilish cackle at the end of the song.  Mike Campbell’s guitar moans on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ ” and “Forgetful Heart.”  David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) on accordion gives nearly every song a loose, bar-band-in-a-bordertown-cantina vibe.  And the lyrics, while familiar (“If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right” … thanks, Leadbelly!) have a down-to-earth sense of humor that contributes greatly to the album’s loose, improvisational feel.  This entire album would sound pretty good blaring from a jukebox down at the corner bar.

Dylan tosses in some crackling rockers like “Jolene” and “Shake Shake Mama” that wouldn’t be out of place on Bob’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” (which has also been in the news of late: the 100th episode that closed the third season may be the last).  “This Dream Of You” could be the album’s best song, turning down the cantina lights with an arrangement recalling the days of Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue.  The album winds down with the apocalyptic boogie of “It’s All Good,” where Dylan describes a growing list of the world’s ills and evils then tags them with the song’s title, which becomes more sarcastic each time he says it.   

This album may be no masterpiece, but Dylan’s solid blues rock with heart and humor is just the musical bailout we need right now.  Awash in Tex-Mex accordion and fiddle like an enchilada lifeboat in a sea of cheese, Together Through Life is a fine late-career effort from America’s greatest rock and roller.

MP3: “Jolene”  (Sorry, file removed by copyright holder)

Bob Dylan official website

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