There’s a new entry on the expansive list of reasons to dig Dylan. The gravel-voiced veteran’s packing a keen appreciation of the absurd. Or how else would you explain him recruiting Robert Hunter – a guy who’s made his rep penning sub-Dylan stanzas for the Grateful Dead – to co-author the lyrics for this, his 33rd (!) album? What next, the Rolling Stones getting the Primal Scream to ghost-write their riffs? Maybe imitation really is the highest form of flattery.
The collaboration must have been seamless, as it’s hard to tell where Hunter’s contribution begins and Dylan’s ends. ‘Together Through Life’ is a million miles removed from the horrors of Dylan and Hunter’s previous shared composition ‘The Ugliest Girl in the World’, an even-worse-than-it-sounds ditty off 1988’s knackered ‘Down in the Groove’. But it’s not quite up to the lofty standards of Dylan’s revival trilogy ‘Time Out of Mind’ (1997), ‘Love & Theft’ (2001) and ‘Modern Times’ (2006). Wry, sad, wise, righteously irked and wickedly funny, ‘Together Through Life’ is – nothing more, nothing less - a good album.
What we have here is an old man with the blues, both metaphorically - the lyrics are littered with references to doors slamming shut, days drawing to an end and opportunities wasted - and very literally, when it comes to the twelve-bar favouring musical settings. The likes of easy-rolling ‘Jolene’, smoky rumba ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ and ‘My Wife’s Hometown’ balance precariously between respecting tradition and diving headfirst into cliché, the latter even lifting its melody wholesale from Willie Dixon’s evergreen ‘I Just Want to Make Love to You’. At times, it’s hard not to wonder whether anyone would much pay attention if this wasn’t THE Bob Dylan. It’s all perfectly pleasant, lifted far beyond the meagre thrills of bar band boogie wonderland by the tex-mex hued tones of David Hidalgo’s omnipresent accordion and the ghoulishly charismatic sandpaper rasp from Dylan’s ravaged-beyond-belief pipes. But the sense of urgency, the feeling that this stuff had to be put down on paper, is notably absent.
That said, no one had a go at bluesmen ala Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker – the most apt points of comparison to the endlessly touring Dylan these days - when they were caught coasting along routes they’d visited many times before towards the end of their illustrious careers. At 67, surely Dylan’s earned to right to have a bit of relaxed fun, freed from the pressures of having to deliver a Grand Statement with every utterance. Dylan nuts can comb through the wounded & hurting country waltz ‘Life Is Hard’, distorted lament of love-gone-frosty ‘Forgetful Heart’, deliciously pissed-off single-chord stomp ‘It’s All Good’ (a definite highpoint here) and The Band-esque country-soul groove of ‘Feel a Change Coming On’ for clues and prophesies. More well-adjusted listeners can simply be happy that arguably the most important and influential songwriter popular music has to boast of is still producing stuff that’s well worth a listen.