There are people, influential people, that say Bob Dylan’s entered somewhat of a renaissance. On paper, it’d be hard to disagree. His last two albums have sold as many copies as his entire -80s and -90s output combined- and this in the midst of a collapsing industry, while old-school rock critics have fallen over themselves to be the first to hail each new album a classic: 2006’s Modern Times was dubbed a masterpiece before anyone had even heard it; 1997’s Time Out Of Mind is still regarded as a classic, despite the fact people have heard it. While it’s not unusual for critics to fawn over one particular record at the same time, three records over the space of a decade is just downright uncritical. One could hardly blame him for becoming complacent.
One positive trend has emerged: ever since ditching the big-name producers and taking control of his own recordings (under his Jack Frost pseudonym), Dylan’s records have grown more impressive, sonically, with each passing release, even if the actual songs have been as patchy and inconsistent as ever. Put simply, Dylan has never, ever, sounded as good as he does on Together Through Life. His voice is ragged and world-worn, and honestly it suits him, but what’s really striking is the depth of the arrangements. The record sounds like nothing he’s ever done before, a fact owing in part to the conspicuous presence of drony accordion on almost every track, courtesy of David Hidalgo of Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos.
Hidalgo isn’t the only new addition to the line-up: also featured for the first time is guitarist Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Campbell’s aggressive, slightly showy leads add a spark to tracks like opener -Beyond Here There’s Nothin” and the rollicking blues pair -Jolene’ and -Shake Shake Mama.’ Accompanist Donny Herron is more of a nuanced player, penning the excellent Hawaiian-style pedal steel motif that gives -Life Is Hard’ such a unique, indefinable quality. The rest of the album is given over to stylish, groove-based blues numbers, mournful in tone but utterly hypnotic in a maze of psychedelic organs and alternating swells of accordion and harmonica. The latter combination is particularly delicious on the booty-call ballad -If You Ever Go To Houston.’
Yet, while the presentation is immaculate, there’s no escaping the lingering sense that Together Through Life is just not that interesting. Sure, the songs sound very pretty and the grooves are just far too easy to get lost in, but it only distracts from the fact that Dylan never really shows up. This wouldn’t be a problem if he’d brought along some brilliant songs or a set of amazingly incisive lyrics, but, as it stands, he just sort of exists. There’s the odd burst of inspiration here and there. He re-writes the Etta James classic -I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (a.k.a. the Diet Coke song) as ‘I just want to say that hell’s my wife’s home town,’ a fact I probably shouldn’t reveal here because half of the fun is kicking yourself when you finally realise why the tune is so familiar. A cutting line here or there, and it’s really the only time he sounds in-form.
Having said that, Together Through Life is a perfectly serviceable record. It takes approximately zero risks and concentrates on getting the basics right: the grooves are strong, the instrumentals top-drawer (the drumming in particular is breath-taking) and you can more or less whistle the entire record after a couple of listens. As background music, it’s fantastic. Just don’t listen too closely.