RATING: 3.5 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
For many avid music listeners, it feels as though Bob Dylan has indeed been together with us through life.
He started out simple in the sixties — just an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and his aged-before-its-time voice. By the end of the decade, he had gone electric, gone back to acoustic, and gone to Nashville to aid in the popularization of country rock.
Before the seventies were out, he recorded covers, rediscovered rock, discovered female background singers, and found God. The next two decades were hit and miss — although any true Dylan fan will tell you that even Knocked Out Loaded has its charms…
Since 1997, Dylan has released what many refer to as his comeback trilogy (Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times), although he has cryptically referred to Love & Theft as the first in a trilogy.
Now, less than a year away from a new decade and one more than that from his 50th anniversary in the recording business, Dylan has released his most fun and accessible album in years. “Together Through Life” may have the nostalgic sound and rusted, creaky voice that has been characteristic of Dylan’s recent work, but the subject matter and the tone of the songs is refreshingly light…
…for Dylan, that is.
Upon first glance, the title of the third track – “My Wife’s Home Town” – suggests a song of fond recollection about a spouse’s origins. And yet that is not the case at all. As Dylan repeats in the chorus, “I just want to say that hell is my wife’s home town…”
The song concludes with a chuckling sound from Dylan that is reminiscent of the gutteral laugh in Elvis Presley’s Christmas classic “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” This song is a prime example of the alteration in tone on this most recent Dylan release. As the cover would suggest, love is a recurring topic that is approached with directness and a sense of humor that wasn’t evident on Modern Times.
For many reasons, Modern Times is a technically superior album — lyrically, instrumentally, and in terms of overall progression. That being said, Together Through Life is perhaps the most accessible of Dylan’s post-millenium recordings. The songs are short — most are in the 3-4 minute range — and the album only gets better as you listen, track after track.
“Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” the album starter, is a nice opening that lyrically toys with the listener, seeming at its face to be a song about a dedicated relationship. Dylan sings, “As long as you stay with me, the whole world is my throne.”
“Beyond here lies nothin’,” he continues, “Nothin’ we can call our own.”
By the end of the song, you are left to wonder whether the narrator is staying in his relationship for love — the kind of love that reduces all outside elements to “nothin'” — or because there is simply nowhere else, nowhere better, to go.
The true highlights come during the second half of the album (side B, for those of you who purchased the vinyl edition).
“Jolene” fits firmly into my long list of favorite songs with a girl’s first name for a title — BnL’s “Maybe Katie,” the Beach Boys’ “Wendy,” and Fountains of Wayne’s “Hey Julie” to name a few.
Likewise, “Shake Shake Mama” is perhaps the most rockin’ number on the album, although it is a fairly standard blues progression.
Finally, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” is the best song on the album. Lyrically, instrumentally, and compositionally (a middle AND a solo!), this song has a catchy chorus and comes as a bit of a surprise as the ninth and penultimate track.
“Life is Hard” and “It’s All Good” act as bookends of sorts to the album as a whole, the former setting the theme early on and the latter bringing it all to a conclusion. As is typical of the album, Dylan plants his tongue at least lightly in his cheek and turns a cliched phrase into the perfect chorus.
At the end of the day, Together Through Life will not be remembered as one of his best albums. In a sense, though, it was never intended to be. It came on quickly, surprising even me when its existence was announced a month before its release in Rolling Stone. Apparently, Dylan hit upon inspiration after co-writing “Life is Hard” with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter for the Olivier Dahan film My Own Love Song.
Dylan’s spacing between album releases has been 4-5 years for as long as I can recall, and this one came a mere three years after its predecessor.
While the time between releases is a unexpectedly brief and the fact that he collaborated on all but one song (“This Dream of You”) is surprising, it was perhaps not a shock that Hunter is the collaborator. After all, Dylan and the Dead have a longstanding relationship and mutual respect. Truly, according to Dylan, his tour with the Dead in the eighties revitalized his passion for performing at a time when he was losing that particular spark.
Now, like an all-star pitcher who is starting on fewer days’ rest than usual, Dylan’s performance on Together Through Life may not be epic, but it is still amazing.