CK Retro Review: Together Through Life by Bob DylanPosted: July 24, 2013
When it arrived in 2009, Bob Dylan’s Together Through Life was met with almost universal praise from reviewers (yours truly included, I must admit.) And yet…. The album, which features Dylan co-writing with Robert Hunter and getting instrumental support from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and accordionist David Hidalgo, hasn’t blossomed with the passing of time like other late-period Dylan albums tend to do. I would wager that it’s not too high on any Bob fanatic’s playlist these days, burdened by a few too many generic blues tracks and a dearth of thunderbolt moments. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Jolene”- This song is as generic as it gets both lyrically and musically. Even Bob’s crack band fails to provide it a jolt, leaving it at bar-band material at best. I’ll take Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” over this one any day of the week.
9. “My Wife’s Home Town”- Maybe Dylan and Hunter made each other chuckle with the lyrics here, but for the listener, well, I guess you had to be there. Dylan’s vocals are uncomfortably serrated on the track and the pace is sludgy. Take the semi-funny punch line of the refrain away, and even that loses its luster after its repeated a few times, and there’s not much left here.
8. “Shake Shake Mama”- This one has an effective enough groove, but the repetitiveness of it begs for lyrics to provide some spice and variety. Alas, there is little life in them besides some worn over blues cliches which are hung together without any regard for how they fit into the song.
7. “If You Ever Go To Houston”- This exercise in Tex-Mex balladry is understated enough to be charming. Dylan sets the song in an Old West full of gunslingers and barrooms, but you can tell all that the second Hidalgo’s accordion strolls across the dusty trail. Nothing too fancy, but welcome nonetheless.
6. “Life Is Hard”- Melodies are usually not what one discusses when dealing with Dylan’s later work, but “Life Is Hard” has a subtly affecting tune. Even if Bob can’t quite grab the higher notes, the strain is emblematic of his character’s woeful plight. This dude is seriously messed up over the departure of his love, so much so that he feels a “chilly breeze/In place of memories.” He can’t even muster up some trademark Dylanesque black humor to leaven his plight. As a result, the song teeters on the edge of being too maudlin, but Dylan’s vocal keeps on the right side of the line.
5. “I Feel A Change Comin’ On”- This song has the feel of one of The Band’s more soulful tracks, which means Hidalgo plays the Garth Hudson role here and plays it well. When the album came out, everybody jumped on the lines about Billie Joe Shaver and James Joyce as emblematic of Dylan’s unique songwriting perspective. For me, I prefer the other bridge, where Bob opines about the futility of dreams in simple but stinging words. There’s a good vibe to this one on the whole, even if it’s not quite the definitive statement it aspires to be.
4. “It’s All Good”- Maybe this one should have had a subtitle for the sake of accuracy: “It’s All Good (But Not Really)”. Dylan seems to be saying that the title phrase is not only wrong-headed but dangerous. His narrator has his eyes wide open about the world’s ills, but he’s also ready to take advantage of the chaos where he can. Even if the lyrics are a bit too obvious, the song gets by on the maniacal joy that Dylan seems to be having throughout.
3. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing”- The dynamic music pushes this one a long way, with the accordion hook and Campbell’s powerful licks playing off each other and the flamenco rhythm nicely. The lyrics may not be the most evocative set in Bob’s career (although “boulevards of broken cars” is quite a potent phrase), but the words fit the meter tight to make it prime sing-along material. Basically, it’s an airtight single, and that’s no easy feat.
2. “Forgetful Heart”- A suitably moody recording with lyrics just suggestive enough to make this sound maybe more profound that it is. Dylan has had conversations with his ticker before (“Heart Of Mine”), but none so ominous as this. That last couplet is a doozy (“The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door”) and the song sustains its central conceit well all the way through. It’s more of a triumph of songwriting technique than an example of inspired profundity, but it’s still fine.
1. “This Dream Of You”- While it’s probably not fair to cast aspersions on the contributions of Robert Hunter based on the fact that the lone song which Dylan wrote alone is by far the best on the album, it is probably fair to say that it’s not a coincidence. Like other songs on the album, Dylan doesn’t try to fling his lyrics too far afield of the music, which in this case is a lovely South-of-the-border tune with fiddles and accordion in perfect conjunction. Yet this is the one Together Through Life song that has a little of the old Dylan mystery and magic. What seems on the surface like a simple broken-hearted lament actually goes much deeper and darker than that, until the very existence of the narrator’s dream girl comes into question. It’s haunting stuff, and it’s miles and away the best song here.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)