By Joel Francis
After delivering three “important” albums in the past dozen years, it’s nice to know Bob Dylan can make an album without making a statement.
“Together Through Life” feels like an afternoon drive through a dusty Texas border town with the windows rolled down. Much of that feel comes from the ubiquitous accordion played by David Hildago of Los Lobos. Lyricist Robert Hunter – who co-wrote all but one of “Life”’s tunes with Dylan and is best known for writing “Casey Jones” and other songs with the Grateful Dead – deserves some credit for the record’s lack of ponderousness.
But lack of weight doesn’t equal a lightweight record in this case. The album is a cousin to “New Morning,” a solid, offering that is overshadowed by the albums surrounding it and filled with songs Dylan recorded because he wanted to, not because he had something to say.
Sonically, the album is cut from the same cloth that has defined Dylan’s previous ‘00’s offerings. It is a pastiche of Chess blues, Sun Records country and rock and pre-war pop. While there’s nothing as sunny as “Silvio,” a track Dylan and Hunter collaborated on 20 years ago, there’s also nothing as forgettable as “Ugliest Girl in the World,” the other fruit borne of that union.
Guitarist Mike Campbell from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers adds light acoustic guitars and mandolin to most tracks, but drops a murky electric guitar reminiscent of Neil Young on “Forgetful Heart.” Lyrically the song resembles the material for “Time Out Of Mind,” right down to the dark lyrics: “The door has closed, if indeed there ever was a door.”
While Dylan albums are rarely sunny endeavors, the gloom of “Forgetful Heart,” and the sarcasm of “It’s All Good” are broken by upbeat numbers like “Jolene” and “Shake Mama Shake” – both of which sound like they came from the Chess Studios at 2120 S. Michigan Avenue circa 1958. The tongue-in-cheek “My Wife’s Hometown” might be Dylan’s funniest number since his knock-knock joke in “Po’ Boy “ while “I Feel A Change Coming On” has a twilight optimism.
Fans have grown accustomed to waiting nearly five years between new offerings. “Together Through Life” is surprise arrival little more than two years after “Modern Life.” “Life”’s runtime of 10 tracks and 45 minutes and lack of “statement song” like “Highlands” or “Ain’t Talkin’” make a tempting case to write the album off as a lesser work. Although it will never measure among the first-tier cannon, those who dismiss it do so at their own folly.