Columbia Records, 2009
Robert Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, has just released his 33rd studio album for Columbia Records. Together Through Life is a brief, but ultimately fulfilling jaunt down the overgrown back-roads of American musicology. From the swampy Zydeco-like accordion riff Los-Lobos-member David Hildago drives through the heart of disk opener, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” through the Honky Tonk Roadhouse Boogie of “Shake Shake Mama” and turning a corner into the Tex-Mex flavored “This Dream of You;” this album is a fine representation of Dylan’s post-millenium oeuvre.
Like his last two albums, Dylan himself again takes the producer’s chair and dons the alias “Jack Frost.” His icy production is similarly sparse and to-the-point, allowing the listener to wade through the bog and into the root of the songs. Guitars fuzz and fizzle in a murky backwater, punctuated by shimmering electric organ blasts, snatches of accordion, and wayward fiddles churning this gumbo into a spicy concoction of countrified, boogie blues. Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and the aforementioned Hildago come along for the ride, adding an earthy hue to the groove. All told, these 10 songs, in classic album format brevity, find their rightful place in Dylan’s ever-expanding canon.
Although not as biblically revelatory as Modern Times or apocalyptically desolate as Time Out of Mind, Together Through Life easily notches another entry into Dylan’s restless travelogue. All of the trademarks any Dylan enthusiast has come to expect are here: the odd pop-culture allusions such as, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce,” in the lilting, joyous optimism of “I Feel a Change is Coming On” to his reworking of the Willie Dixon Blues classic “I Just Want to Make Love to You” onto which he grafts original lyrics—a tight re-reading of the tune to come up from the waters anew—with “My wife’s Home Town” much like he did for the last album’s “Rollin’ & Tumblin’.” In the lyrics department, Dylan has become less wordy and more precise in his imagery, enlisting celebrated Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter to stir this recipe into something more easily digestible.
Yet this album is all Dylan; a road-weary traveler footing it down America’s lost highways in search of the secrets so many other musical journeymen have chased after, but were ultimately consumed by: Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie—all ghosts haunting Dylan’s work but resonating strongly through it. As always, Dylan forces his listeners to face up to the hard truths of life as he cynically wheezes out this album’s philosophical gem, “The door is closed forevermore, if indeed there ever was a door,” on the album’s centerpiece “Forgetful Heart;” reminding us that life is foremost about the journey and not about the destination. "There must be some way out of here?," a character in a Dylan classic from another era questions, and we all know the answer; we are all stuck with our lot, so let’s make the best of it. Together Through Life is certainly not the beginning, nor is it the end for Dylan, however it is a document that somehow magically weaves past and present into some alternate reality where the American Wild West and the steel-and-glass towers of corporate America meet on an endless horizon.