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Published: 2009/04/28
by Randy Ray

Together Through Life – Bob Dylan

Columbia

Ramshackle, jagged, and planted deeply in cynicism, Bob Dylan’s new record, Together Through Life, is surprisingly looser than normal. And that’s saying quite a bit as Dylan has rarely been formal. If anything, the recording appears live, relaxed, and humorously off-the-cuff, capturing these hard times with a weary post-Americana vibe that is also shocking in the fact that Dylan appears to be laughing at us. Again.

Sure, the lyrical content, co-written with longtime Jerry Garcia songwriting partner and solo artist, Robert Hunter, is often far too riddled with clichimagery. The legendary pair worked on nine of the ten album tracks, and a mere glance at the song list can trigger a wince or three: “Life is Hard,” “I Feel A Change Comin’ On,” and “It’s All Good.” But Dylan finds a way to breathe inside these words, shaking hints of the familiar, tweaking imagery as only he can. One is left feeling both slapped and teased. This version of the Dylan masked man won’t shut a door in your face, but he may tell you why he just might.

Unlike previous efforts which succeeded in making Dylan’s modern songs relevant_Time Out of Mind_ and "Love and Theft"—the ancient bard and traveling minstrel seems content to relax besides the muse of another. Wrapped in the co-written words of Hunter seems appropriate since many of the resonating themes are centered on couples. The portraits covered with clever and hoarse sincerity drip with loving confessionals (“Life is Hard”) and idealistic romps (“Jolene”). Elsewhere, one is offered bitter pills of reality (“Forgetful Heart”) and devilish sarcasm (“It’s All Good”). Dylan’s rare choice of using another to help pen his words is at first somewhat surprising and disappointing. Let’s face it, one wants to hear Dylan pick his own brain in his songs, especially during this neo-Apocalyptic times. But Hunter provides him enough cloth to sew his own spin on things, and the pleasure of these songs is discovering that.

The production by Dylan under his moniker, Jack Frost, is indeed very live-sounding and often raw, sloppy, and boisterous. He even manages a hint of that thin wild mercury sound (“Shake Shake Mama”). Only this time, it’s more metallic and bright silver, rather than gold. David Hidalgo plays accordion on numerous tracks, which give the songs another dose of conceptual continuity, and he is especially noteworthy on an almost Band-like reading of “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.” You can hear Garth Hudson poking his huge head here in the invisible keyboard distance, Levon Helm on skins and vocals, and Rick Danko pushing the song forward as only he could. Hidalgo’s accordion lends a dreamy quality to a lyric that is often trite, but never too tired.

There are even songs where one chuckles and can’t help but think of what Dylan once sung: “of course you’re going to think this song is just a riff.” One shuffles and bops across the floor, forgetting one’s problems and living in the moment as only true art can provoke, as Dylan and his touring band rolls through intoxicating riffs on “Shake Shake Mama” and “It’s All Good” (it ain’t really all good as Dylan laughs in this lyric, as he also laughs at Hunter’s (or is it Dylan’s?) line about Hell’ being his wife’s hometown on another track).

As one travels through these ten tracks again and again, the vibe appears much more relaxed than is expected from Dylan. Heck, most folks still interested in the man’s careerand there are almost four generations of fans who dodid not even think he’d be delivering another platter in this decade. But you can hear Dylan’s need to keep moving forward. It is within the languid atmosphere of “This Dream of You” that Dylan shows that he is still very much intrigued in the creative process. This beautifully sublime track with another fine accordion by Hidalgo is an echo of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue days. But here, he finds the hook early, and doesn’t smother it with input overload. Indeed, it is the only track with words and music solely written by Dylan on the album, and it centers his conviction that love with another is really where it’s at.

Despite its often odd effervescence, the concept of terrible beauty, in general, where one can pull art from dark times, Dylan appears quite satisfied with the results, still searching for that good tune, engaged with his muse, whether it’s his or borrowed from Hunter, as the disparate elements dance together, yes, I suppose, through life. Dylan is comfortable in his own skin, and still very much interested in his craft. And you should be, too.

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