Sort through any of the copy dedicated to Bob Dylan’s post-1975 highlights (there are more than one would think) and you’ll find an odd, eventually annoying phenomena: every great record released in that window of time is “the best thing Dylan’s recorded since Blood on the Tracks!” Invariably, as with the Rolling Stones are to 1978’s Some Girls, from now to time immemorial Bob Dylan’s new work will always be measured against the ever-growing and looming shadow of his mid-seventies classic. While attempting to avoid that strange lunar pull that drives a listener and writer to stake such a comparison, I will say the following: Together Through Life is at least as excellent as 1997’s Time Out of Mind, the first in a series of new-classic discs spun out by a rejuvenated Dylan, while not quite as overwhelmingly radiant and (let’s get the word out of the way now) brilliant as the thematically deeper and more cohesive “Love and Theft” and Modern Times.
Though Together may find itself as the newest pearl on Dylan’s increasing strand of hot-streak of new releases, if there is a comparison to be made, it’s to the atonal gypsy folk of 1976’s Desire, wherein violins formed parabolic arcs from churning keyboard rhythms and unhinged percussion would incurvate beneath adrenalized guitars while Dylan sang of lost and lowly characters, including his soon-to-be-divorced self. While Together’s sound is far more earthy than that—here, Dylan sounds as if he’s leading an accordion-laced bar-band in 1950’s Havana—like Desire, it’s an album of inchoate experimentation and ever-reaching ambition, and, also like Desire, finds Dylan working with a songwriting partner (Robert Hunter, who cowrote Dylan’s 1988 winner “Silvio”).
Together, the two men strike out for the wilder territories of Dylan’s sonic terrain—while Bob’s still obsessed, as with his previous three albums, with the sounds of pre-rock ‘n roll music, he’s shifted his focus from occasionally maudlin ballads into fiercely rollicking jump-blues like the irresistibly swaggering and winking “Shake Shake Baby,” his best blues track since 1975’s “Meet Me in the Morning” (agh, even I can’t help doing it, apparently), the guttural, carnivalesque “My Wife’s Hometown” and propulsive, woozy album closer “It’s All Good,” with Dylan gleefully growling through each track like a sneering, howling reincarnation of Willie Dixon.
All told, while Together Through Life may bring nothing entirely new to Dylan’s post-Tracks table—and at this point, what would?—but it does serve to remind us that, even in his twilight, Dylan is a ceaseless searcher and innovator, one of our most daring and vital artists even as he drops weighty social issues to playfully, mischievously ruminate on lust and love. And, if nothing else, this crackling album stands to remind that the man can still rock like all hell.
Few people can take credit for directly inspiring a Bob Dylan album, but Olivier Dahan is one of them. The French director asked Dylan for a song for his upcoming film My Own Love Song, and the track “Life is Hard,” served as the inspiration for the rest of the Together Through Life. The album is produced by Dylan under his Jack Frost pseudonym and features most of his regular touring band as well members of Los Lobos and the Heartbreakers. After exploring the roots of popular music on Love and Theft and Modern Times, this time out Dylan roots himself squarely in the blues tradition, featuring many, as he calls them, “struggling love songs.”