CD Review of Together through Life by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan: Together through Life
Recommended if you like
Tex-Mex, the blues, Tom Waits
Label
Columbia
Bob Dylan:
Together through Life

Reviewed by Michael Fortes

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B
ob Dylan breathes. People notice.



Such is the way one could typify the reactions his albums have received since his long creative drought came to an end with 1997’s now-classic Time Out of Mind. Never mind the fact that it was the 1998 Album of the Year Grammy winner – this is the only Dylan album of recent vintage to have been honored with covers by Tom Verlaine ("Cold Irons Bound" appeared on the I’m Not There soundtrack) and the White Stripes (they have been known to break out a killer live version of "Love Sick" on occasion).

Sure, plenty of folks cynically chortled that he was getting "sympathy votes" for the quality of his new, even more scratchily sung tunes. And the naysayers were dead wrong, not to mention ignorant of the fact that ol’ Zimmy had been wandering through a dark, depressing creative wilderness since the early 1980s, Oh Mercy notwithstanding. There were few more qualified than Dylan to write and emote songs of life, love, aging and death. Finally, he was really connecting – with the songs, with himself, and with all those who ever felt that confused feeling of resignation that resides somewhere between the desire to either kiss an estranged lover or precipitate her premature demise.

Bob Dylan

Four original studio albums into Dylan’s autumnal peak, it would perhaps seem expected that he would turn to a collaborator to freshen up his songs a bit and, you know, keep up the pace. The co-writer approach has yielded mixed results for Dylan in the past. While his teamwork with the late Jacques Levy was theatrically brilliant for much of 1976’s Desire, the two songs he wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on 1988’s widely maligned Down in the Groove were unremarkable. It was rather telling that the abundance of covers on that record were more Dylanesque than the originals.

So the reality here is that, on Together through Life, the big surprise is not so much that Dylan pumped out another solid record just three years after Modern Times, but that he went back to the creative well with Hunter for nine of this album’s 10 songs and didn’t draw up much in the way of muddy water. Intentionally or not, he turns what otherwise would be just another "can you help me find my baby?" song into one of contemporary anxiety by evoking the narco state south of the border when he sings "I nearly got killed here during the Mexican war" in "If You Ever Go to Houston." And while "I Feel a Change Coming On" cleverly celebrates the joy of love and continued vitality in old age ("I must be losing my mind / You’re the object of my desire"), he goes for levity in "My Wife’s Home Town" (as in "I just want to say that Hell’s my wife’s home town") to the tune of "I Just Want to Make Love to You." And when he lets out a little laugh at the end of the tune, it’s hard not to laugh right along with him.

With Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo adding beautiful Tex-Mex accordion throughout much of the album, Together through Life takes on the most romantic tone of any Dylan album since 1970’s New Morning. The album’s loveliest tune, though, "Life Is Hard," lacks said accordion and is notable more for the clearest, prettiest Dylan vocal heard on a record since who knows when. Given that he tends to sing like Tom Waits with advanced stage emphysema, this performance of "Life Is Hard" qualifies as a small miracle, and we need as many of those miracles as we can scrounge up these days.

Best of all, Dylan sounds genuinely happy here, and the feeling is infectious. As long as Bob is practically air-kissing the blues like a well-behaved Howlin’ Wolf and partying in that gleeful way that only an old codger can on tunes like "Shake Shake Mama," his pronouncement that "It’s All Good" is sure to be not just Dylan’s self-fulfilling prophecy, but our own.

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