Bob Dylan, commissioned to do some soundtrack work, kept recording with the assembled group — ultimately producing a powerfully personal result.
“Together Through Life,” out on April 28 on Columbia, is a revelation in its stubborn unwillingness to move into the realm of Statements. Of Big Records. Of Career-Defining Blah Blah Blah. Dylan wants to make a small, good thing — focusing inward, mostly, talking about relationships with both honesty and a ragged sense of humor — and he brilliantly succeeds.
Highlights include “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” and “My Wife’s Hometown,” both of which sound like shambling leftovers from Dylan’s late-1980s sessions in New Orleans with Daniel Lanois – complete with surprising synocations, biting guitar (courtesy of Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame) and fun, braying vocals.
“She can … make things bad, she can make things worse. She’s got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse,” Dylan sings on “My Wife’s Hometown,” with a sly wink. “One of these days, I’ll end up on the run. I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone.”
Only later do we learn that his spouse resides in Hell.
The loping “If You Ever Go to Houston” — “you’d better walk right!,” Dylan croons — is a playful bit of songcraft, too, made complete with this swaying accordion contribution by David Hildago of Los Lobos. “This Dream Of You,” in what amounts to a mariachi mash note, is as sweet as it is charming.
There is an intimacy, and a loose musical feel, about the appropriately titled “Together Through Life” that’s reminiscent of a bottle-passing night of music amongst old friends. It’s a welcome return to the kind of collaborative successes he found with Lanois on “Oh Mercy” and, earlier, with The Band on recordings like “Planet Waves.”
All of the world’s problems, after all, wither under the glare of an angry woman: “State gone broke, the county’s dry,” Dylan sings, “Don’t be lookin’ at me with that evil eye!”
He’s having fun. And pretty soon, you are too, as Dylan scoots and flirts (no kidding) through a rocker called “Shake Shake Mama.”
He still explores darker emotions on the bluesy “Forgetful Heart” — memorable for a funky, misshapen solo by Campbell at its middle — then opens himself to tender vulnerability on cuts like “Life is Hard,” an almost slow-motion moment of nostalgia. Dylan’s bare-seamed late-career singing is particularly effective on the latter, bringing a broken dignity to a lyric about lost love.
Then Dylan brushes off a lifetime of incessant examination and overthunk interpretations with the Cajun-spiced “It’s All Good”: “Brick by brick they tear you down. … You oughta know, if they could they would,” Dylan sings. “I wouldn’t change it even if I could. You know what they say: It’s all good.”
By turns both chummily tuneful, pungent and toss-off hilarious, the unforced “Through Life Together” is most unlike what your average legend would dare be: Real.