Together Through Life
The "Deluxe" Together Through Life has the standard album plus a sticker, poster, and two bonus CDs. The sticker and poster are worthless; the former merely shows the album title, and the latter the lame cover photo. One CD is the "Friends and Neighbors" episode of Dylan's popular XM radio show. A typically enjoyable example of the program, it has an astonishing variety of music mixed with Dylan's lively, informative, and often amusing commentary and quotes. It is a good introduction to the show for anyone unfamiliar with it but of little value to those who are. The other CD is also virtually worthless -- an outtake from landmark film No Direction Home lasting only a few minutes. It has an interview with Dylan's little-known first manager, Roy Silver, and a slightly different audio take of "Blowin' in the Wind." The segment has no revelations, and it is easy to see why it was excluded, but hard-cores may find it somewhat interesting. All must decide if this makes the "Deluxe" edition worth purchasing over the standard; in most cases, it certainly does not.
As for the album itself, though not on par with his three prior later career masterpieces, Together Through Life is another worthy Bob Dylan album. Fans should certainly get his major albums first, but anyone interested in him should eventually check it out, while significant differences from his other albums mean it may possibly appeal to those not usually keen on him.
It is immediately clear that Together is far more modest than other recent Dylan albums; it lacks their epic feel and is indeed only about two thirds of their length. One might almost see it as Dylan kicking against his Grand Old Man of Meaningful Songs title. Songs are short and to the point; there is no attempt at epic or panoramic music. More notably, there are few words by Dylan's standard, and what we get is unusually simple and straightforward, stripped of imagery and grand themes. They generally focus on love and lust in familiar terms and are doubtless highly influenced by co-writer and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Those who value Dylan's profundity may be disappointed and perhaps even curse Hunter; it is surely no surprise that the only song written by Dylan alone ("This Dream of You") is easily the best.
All this suggests that Together has little merit, but this is not so, though it is undeniably minor. The concision and punchiness of the words are quite intriguing, if limited, and Dylan's vocals retain their latter-day strength. One would have to look very hard indeed for another singer of his age with such emotional vitality and diversity. "Life Is Hard" has a surprisingly nimble falsetto, but his gifts, as ever, have nothing to do with hitting and holding notes or having range. Instead, his phrasing remains impeccable, and he puts the songs forth with verve and vigor few can even approach; this is particularly important, given the lyrics' unusual nature.
Music is probably the biggest point of contention. Aside from "Life Is Hard," an acoustic take on Dylan's recent Rat Pack balladry fixation, it is essentially split between accordion-dominated Tex Mex and Chicago blues. The former is a great surprise; Dylan has hardly ever used accordion, and never for an extended time, and had dabbled in Tex-Mex only on 1976's Desire. Accordion - courtesy of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo, who also plays guitar - is practically the lead instrument on several cuts. This takes some getting used to, as does the musical genre generally, but grew on me significantly, as it likely will on most. The blues entries are far easier for fans of latter-day Dylan to appreciate. If less than revolutionary, they feature some fiery playing from Heartbreaker Mike Campbell and three members of Dylan's crack touring band. A few cuts mix the two styles to interesting, if somewhat jarring, effect.
"Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" is a good example. Essentially a take on the classic Otis Rush blues "All Your Love" with accordion instead of harmonica, it is a high energy opener with several notable short guitar solos, blazing trumpet, blaring organ, and powerful drums. It is also a good introduction to the lyrical style, beginning as simply as possible with "Oh well, I love you pretty baby."
"Life Is Hard" will not convince those turned off by Dylan's recent ballads but is excellent for those who like them. With beautiful music and a supremely touching vocal, it is highly affecting despite words that are occasionally too clichéd.
"My Wife's Home Town" is another harmonica-cum-accordion blues update, this time of the classic "I Just Want to Make Love to You," and even credits Willie Dixon. Well-done if hardly world-shattering, it epitomizes Together's lyrical modesty but at least has some amusing lines. The fiery vocal improves it substantially.
"If You Ever Go to Houston" may be the most accordion-dominated track - probably too much so for many, especially as the riff is very simplistic. A Wild West ballad and Texas ode, it is one of the slightest cuts but still enjoyable.
Further proof that no one does torch songs like Dylan, "Forgetful Heart" mixes things up somewhat with dramatic, Neil Young-esque electric guitar and other musical nuances.
"Jolene" is the most uptempo song, with a killer riff and some short, incendiary guitar solos. It is nice to hear Dylan and company rip it up, though the asinine words will disappoint many.
"This Dream of You" is Together's closest thing to a masterpiece - and it is tantalizingly close. Flat out mariachi, it shows that Dylan can quickly master nearly every genre; whatever one thinks of the accordion elsewhere, here it approaches sublime, while the bittersweet lyrics and mournful croon match it. This is a piece of emotional vitality only Dylan could create and has the album's best lyrics by a considerable margin.
"Shake Shake Mama" may be the most minor cut but is an enjoyable, rollicking blues.
"I Feel a Change Coming On" is probably the second best entry. A weeper with fine lyrics and excellent, highly creative drums, it may be Together's best vocal and is a worthy canon addition.
"It's All Good" is another accordion-laced classic blues send-up, reminiscent of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips" among others. The words are very good, some of Dylan's best satire in years, and possibly contain veiled political references. It is a zany, freewheelin', and effective close to an unusual album.
All told, anyone expecting another masterpiece will be disappointed, and Dylan easily has at least a dozen albums that are much better, but this is very respectable, especially considering Dylan's age and how much great music he has already made.