CD Review: Bob Dylan’s “Together Through Life”

Together Through Life

The release of Bob Dylan’s 33rd studio album, Together Through Life, came as a surprise to even his most devout fans.  News of the album’s release came only weeks before it hit stores, setting the music community in a frenzy, drooling for a taste of the new tunes.
The music press took a bite and, predictably, collapsed in orgasmic awe.  “What Bob Dylan is accomplishing these days is unprecedented to the point of being supernatural,” wrote one reviewer.  It’s a “timely masterpiece” and “another genius Dylan disc,” said others.  Well, I hate to be the one to say it, but none of these claims are true.

Believe me, I’m as big of a Dylan fan as you’re likely to find.  No other artist has made as much of an impact on my life and my appreciation of music as he has, which is why I’m disgusted with the circus of ass kissery surrounding his latest record.

In recent years it seems that Dylan’s work, perhaps more so than any other artist’s, is guaranteed to breeze past music’s supposedly most discerning ears and get a bye into the realm of the magnum opus.  Is this a good album?  Sure.  Is it groundbreaking?  Revolutionary?  Dylan’s finest hour?  Certainly not.  It’s pleasant, but hardly as inspiring, challenging or witty as the best of his work.

“Dylan…has never sounded as ravaged, pissed off and lusty, all at once, as he does on Together Through Life,” proclaimed Rolling Stone’s David Fricke.  Are you kidding me?  Of course he has.  He was ravaged, pissed off and lusty way back at 23 years old when he spat venom while dissecting political (“With God On Our Side,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) and personal (“Ballad In Plain D,” “I Don’t Believe You”) confusion.  Making dramatic claims may look snappy in print, but such theatrical statements are quickly taking the place of responsible, thoughtful, and informed criticism.

Personal frustrations with the music press’ approach to the album aside, Together Through Life certainly has moments worth celebrating.  The accordion swells of “I Feel A Change Comin’ On,” for example, intensifies the gentle romanticism of this soulful meditation.

In fact, atmospheric accordion fills are littered throughout the album, giving the songs a distinctive old border town feel.  Much of this Tex-Mex sound is credited to Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, who recorded with Dylan’s band for the record.  Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers also lent his musical talents to the album, but perhaps the most significant collaboration came in the form of Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who co-wrote all but one of the new songs.

“Hunter is an old buddy, we could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there,” said Dylan.  “He’s got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”

Much of the pair’s work revolves around the restlessness of love and personal relationships.  “All night long I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain/The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door” Dylan sings over the eeriness of “Forgetful Heart”’s sloth-like crawl.  The bright, bouncy “Jolene” is classic woman gawking blues.  “Well you’re coming down High Street walking in the sun/You make a dead man rise and holler ‘She’s the one!’”  The mood is more playful still on “Shake Shake Mama”: “I get the blues for you baby when I look up at the sun/Come back here, we can have some real fun.”

Together Through Life is not the musical statement of 2009.  It’s not going to change your life or inspire revolution, but that’s OK.  Bob’s been there; he’s done that.  When the songs are excused from the burden of having to be “the newest masterpieces from a living legend,” their inherent pleasantness becomes much more evident.  Take these tunes as they are.  And enjoy.

—Shelley Peckham

2 Responses

  1. I haven’t picked it up yet….I’m partial to Time Out of Mind…and don’t buy into the notion that Dylan’s lost his mojo. But I do feel the hagiography sometimes gets in the way of appreciating his more recent work for what it.

    My favortie song that Dylan co-wrote with Robert Hunter is Silvio–classic line: “I gotta go…find out something only dead men know.”

    My favorite song that Dylan co-wrote period would be Brownsville Girl, co-written with Sam Shephard, on the otherwise dispensible Knocked Out Loaded, released in 1986.

    Classic stanza:

    Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content.
    I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone.
    You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent.
    And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on.”

    Now that’s songwriting.

  2. Those are great lines. Unfortunately, it’s poetry like that that’s missing from his latest. I’m interested to hear what you think when you get a chance to listen to it.

    I’m a huge Time Out Of Mind fan as well—the best of his recent albums, in my opinion. It’s dark, eerie and strangely hopeful…

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