Together Through Life
3.5 out of 5 stars
Bob Dylan once said “If I told you what our music is really about, we’d probably all get arrested.” The year was 1965 and Dylan was the most famous protest singer of his generation. Fast-forward half a century and Dylan is now singing mawkish lines like “All I have / And all I know / Is this dream of you / which keeps me living on” and “I walk the boulevard / admitting life is hard / Without you near me.”
Yes, Together Through Life contains a surprising dose of sentimentality, which can be partially credited to the presence of Robert Hunter, Grateful Dead lyricist and co-writer of nine tracks on the album. A better explanation for this collection of schmaltzy songs is that Dylan is simply doing what he does best – speaking his mind and expressing his feelings the only way he knows how. This impulsive approach to songwriting justifies how he has churned out 33 studio albums over the course of his career. And at this point in his life, the man wants to sing about love.
Singing about this topic wasn’t taboo on previous Dylan efforts, but it was far less obvious (“One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later),” “Girl of the North Country”). On Life, romantic nostalgia is everywhere, presenting a sharp contrast to his early work. “Forgetful Heart” with its lamenting guitar line wonders “Why can’t we love like we did before.” On “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” Dylan declares “Oh well, I love you pretty baby / You’re the only love I’ve ever known,” and is backed by an appropriately moody Latin drum beat.
Musically, the record is unusually eclectic, displaying a wide range of styles including Delta blues (“My Wife’s Hometown”), Springsteen-esque ballads (“If You Ever Go To Houston”) and even Polish polka (“This Dream of You”). But the album remains relatively cohesive thanks to a single pervasive instrument: the accordion. It provides some necessary texture to an uncharacteristically complacent soundscape. It also furnishes the album with some of its most memorable moments including an accordion backed guitar solo on “I Feel A Change Coming On,” proving Dylan can still push the envelope when it comes to musical ingenuity.
Despite its best efforts, Life ultimately lacks the lasting musical ambition that some of Dylan’s most memorable albums possess (Highway 61 Revisited, Blood On the Tracks, Love & Theft). These classic recordings have a relentless ability to press on, moving forward even when the tempo slows. It’s this quality that makes 10-minute songs seem much shorter than they actually are. Life does not have this constant grinding and churning in its melodies, and some three-minute songs drag on to the point of monotony. The closing track “It’s All Good” breaks this weary feel as a grooving rhythm and stellar blues progression propels the tune to a level of driving energy not met on the rest of the record.
At 67 years old, the obvious question concerning Bob Dylan is one of relevance. Should a man so celebrated for his music even bother writing new material? After listening to Together Through Life and considering the sincere feeling that it achieves, the answer is obvious: absolutely. He might not be the politically charged spitfire of yesteryear, but he’s still superior to most songwriters making music in the 21st century. Even though the album reveals a softer side of Dylan, its still raw and unsettled, preventing it from being dismissed as a sappy failure. And let’s be honest: An average day for Dylan would be a great day for most other musicians.