Together Through Life

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 2009

http://www.bobdylan.com

REVIEW BY: Daniel Camp

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/06/2009

Fresh off the critical and commercial success of 2006’s Modern Times, Bob Dylan had a choice: he could make another ‘important’ album, addressing the woes of a nation in varying degrees of distress, or he could do something totally different.

With the surprise release Together Through Life, Dylan chose the latter – but have no fear, Baby Boomers, there’s some social commentary, too.

The thing I found most astounding about this album was that it actually relies more on the music than the lyrics, something I would hesitate to say about any other Dylan album. The genius of his has always been more about the words on the paper than the notes, but that’s not the case here. Almost every song has a sort of New Orleans bluesy feel to it, a style that is immediately friendly to these ears. There’s a fish restaurant in my hometown that I love almost as much for the music as the food, and Together Through Life seems destined to make it on the playlist. It’s scratchy American blues at its finest.

The other surprise here is that after the heavy-handedness of Modern Times, Dylan does very little prophesying or preaching on this album. While it replicates the feeling of watching him live in the studio, the message is entirely different, and it’s a welcome relief.

Tracks like “My Wife’s Home Town” and “Jolene” are the radio-friendly songs Columbia is bound to love: easy, finger-tapping fun for the average listener. “Shake Shake Mama” is in this same vein, a more upbeat blue song that I dare you to listen to without once tapping your foot. These songs rely heavily on simple, wonderful guitar hooks and the scratchy, pained voice of Dylan himself. In a later song he describes these distinctive, love-it-or-hate-it vocals better than any critic: “I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.” That characteristic grit plays well in this setting and lends authenticity to his chosen style.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The only true slow song is a beautiful ballad, “Life Is Hard,” a song on which Dylan’s scratchy voice actually contributes rather than detracting. This piece is truly romantic, a surprise based on my knowledge of Dylan’s songwriting, and the muted instrumentation helps put the singing at the forefront, a risky move that pays off. While the guitars certainly play their part, they are always in the background, and this is for the better.

Forgettable songs like “If You Ever Go to Houston” and “Forgetful Heart” are much more typical Dylan fare, and while they would have made nice middle pieces on other albums, here I found myself waiting for their conclusion. The songs themselves have merit, but they just don’t have the punch to keep me interested. “This Dream Of You,” however, is surprisingly good, particularly for its place in the album (the seventh track of ten). It is easily the most distinctive song on the CD, sounding vaguely like something that might be played in a French café, and I had to listen to it twice in a row to really let it sink in.

Dylan, ever the chronicler of Americana, refuses to leave his rabid hippies with nothing, leaving the end of the album for them. The first of these two songs, “I Feel A Change Comin’ On,” is my favorite song on the album. Though its lyrics do not explicitly say so, I cannot help but think of this as a post-election song. That being said, Dylan is careful to be neither a wide-eyed optimist nor a cynical pessimist, opting instead for what I can only see as haggard realism. The song urges cautiousness by reminding the listener that “dreams never did work for me anyway, even when they did come true.”

Dylan leaves the listener with “It’s All Good,” which I simply cannot figure out. At times it seems cynical and at others uplifting, juxtaposing the problems of life with the casual reminder of the title, and leaving the listener to decide for him or herself whether or not it truly is all good. And effectively it does so; by the end I’d determined it to be a call for optimism and only thought twice about it upon a second listen.

All in all, it’s an appropriate song for a period of recession, whether you read it as a list of problems or as a beacon of hope. The song, like the album, is what you make of it: it’s not necessarily typical, but it’s always quality.

Rating: A-

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