It’s no secret that Bob Dylan prefers the stage over the studio. The road, not making records, is what has called to him since setting out on his Never-Ending Tour, a moniker that becomes more appropriate and prophetic with each passing year. It’s no wonder that many worshipers at the Alter of Zimmy and Church of Latter-Day Bob feared that Dylan’s “late period”-the sublime trio of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times-would be his final albums unless something compelled him to abandon the highway and record again.
Enter director Olivier Dahan, who asked Dylan to write for the soundtrack of his upcoming film, My Own Love Song. The result was the ballad “Life is Hard” and an unexpected wellspring of inspiration that eventually led to a full album of new material, Together Through Life. Asked why he recorded this album when nobody was expecting him to, Dylan replied, “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.”
On Together Through Life, Jack Frost (aka Dylan) once again takes hold of the production reigns, enlisting Mike Campbell (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on guitar and mandolin and David Hidalgo (Los Lobos) on guitar and accordion, as well as his regular touring band of Tony Garnier, George Recile, and Donny Herron. These guests, particularly Hidalgo, allow Dylan to try some new tricks, the most notable of which is substituting accordion, trumpet, and mandolin for standard guitar parts in several songs. This adds a new flavor to the sound captured on his last two records.
Make no mistake about it. Together Through Life is an album of love songs, but Bob Dylan doesn’t write love songs like anybody else. Guns are cocked, women are power figures, and a fine line between salvation and oblivion is always being tip-toed. As listeners, we’re immediately thrown into the fray when the stakes are at their highest. This record is a glimpse into a mind where love signifies pain as much as euphoria, cruelty as much as sweetness, and longing as much as satisfaction.
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” opens the record with a pounding drive and visceral sense of urgency. Dylan’s foreboding rasp alternates with Hidalgo’s accordion and Herron’s trumpet, which reside in spaces where guitars would normally be. The effect sounds like dance music for lovers tangoing together through the gates of Hell.
Dylan’s voice is gruffer here than on previous recordings, which perfectly suits songs with darker, almost mystical, overtones like “Forgetful Heart”, a slow-rocking lament that has a haunting vibe like “Love Sick” (Time Out of Mind) or “Ain’t Talkin'” (Modern Times). Dylan’s gravelly growl perfectly delivers lines such as “Forgetful heart, like a walking shadow in my brain/All night long, I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain/The door has closed for evermore/If indeed there ever was a door.” Songs like this one are a reminder of Dylan’s ability as a writer and vocalist to conjure up the sense of man at a crossroads, a point where there is no going back and everything hangs in the balance.
On “This Dream of You”, Dylan summons all the gentle his voice can muster in what is his best vocal performance on Together Through Life. It’s a bittersweet reflection on what it’s like to only have the idea or thought of a lover to pull one through life-a dream that might be more wishful than true but is too powerful to ever completely give up on.
“I Feel a Change Comin’ On” might be Dylan’s version of the Serenity Prayer-his resignation that what will be will be in love and that there’s still some excitement and joy to be found in the prospect of finding someone. The drums and accordion feel loose and carefree, giving Dylan plenty of room to anticipate, reflect upon, and try to make sense of what is happening. “What’s the use in dreaming?/You got better things to do/Dreams never did work for me anyway/Even when they did come true.” His voice is rich and full here on what might be the standout track of the album.
The second half of Together Through Life includes several rollicking songs that show a lighter, even playful, side of Dylan. “Jolene” is the humorous tale of a man planning his conquest of a girl who could “make a dead man rise.” “Shake Shake Mama” is a blues arrangement with a bit of funk and lines like “Some of you women you really know your stuff/Some of you women you really know your stuff/But your clothes are all torn, and your language is a little too rough.” And the record’s closing track, “It’s All Good”, is a play on the absurdity of using the common phrase “it’s all good” when things are anything but good. In each verse, Dylan paints a grimmer and bleaker picture than the last, but not to worry because it’s all good!
Dylan shared lyrical duties with old friend Robert Hunter on all but one of the songs on Together Through Life, which is reminiscent of other collaborations such as Dylan’s memorable work with Jacques Levy on Desire. Dylan’s lyrics have been analyzed more than any other songwriter’s, and inevitably, some will try to separate the Bob Dylan lines from the Robert Hunter lines. But Dylan expresses a strong kinship and sense of coming from the same place when he speaks of his friendship with Hunter, which might render such a dissection futile. It seems like Dylan was more than comfortable with letting Hunter take the wheel at times, knowing that even if he nodded off for a spell, they would still end up in the right place.
Together Through Life is a good Dylan album and nothing more. After three five-star records in a row, something was bound to give a little. “Life is Hard” is forgettable, and “If You Ever Go to Houston” drags and suffers vocally from what a Dylan concert attendee would call an “off night.” That’s not to say Dylan missed the mark here. This album is what it was meant to be, and it does what it does rather well. It’s also admirable to see Dylan abandon tried and tested formulas for news sounds and instrumentation. He truly makes his art on his own terms these days and continues to challenge himself, which is why he’ll never again go the way of irrelevant novelty act or dinosaur fossil exhibit.
We can only hope that Together Through Life is not Dylan’s last album, only his most recent.