Together Through Life isn't a classic but it's no Self Portrait either.
Chris Jones 2009
There's a famous anecdote about Bob Dylan stalking Neil Young around the mid-70s, irked to find that someone was getting chart action by sounding a bit like him. As if to echo those far off days he's now matching the Canadian's recent work rate. His 33rd album appears with unexpected haste following 2006's Modern Times. And while cut from the same bluesy cloth as his 'renaissance' trilogy of albums (Time Out Of Mind, Love And Theft and Modern Times) that seemed like tablets hewn from the very fabric of American history, Together Through Life is a distinctly more light-hearted affair.
The album's vibe is resolutely grounded in jolly 12 bar material, at times making it seem more like some Chicago urban blues tribute. My Wife's Home Town (which actually ends with Bob laughing it up) reads like a stand-up comedian's version of a Muddy Waters standard, and at least has the honesty to co-credit Willie Dixon as a writer. Shake, Shake Mama sees Bob, ''Motherless, fatherless and almost friendless too'', but he sounds remarkably chipper about it. Ultimately it's another masterful reading of 20th century American folk, albeit shot through with some mischievous lyrical twists. Whereas on Modern Times he was listening to Alicia Keyes here (on I Feel A Change Comin' On) he's listening to, "...Billy J Shaver and reading James Joyce''. Go figure...
With Donny Herron's steel playing livening the more standard licks of Mike Campbell the loping bar band feel (If You Ever Go To Houston, Jolene) isn't entirely prevalent. The song which got Dylan's creative juices flowing once more - Life Is Hard, penned for the soundtrack to Olivier Dahan's new road movie, My Own Love Song - revisits his recent forays into swingtime jazz; complete with continental mandolins. Also the addition of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo on accordion adds a dash of Tex Mex spice, particularly on Beyond Here Lies Nothing and This Dream Of You, where additional violin recalls his Desire period.
Despite the fact that for nigh on ten years Dylan's been writing songs that deal in Americana cliches there seems little danger of him regressing into some kind of dullard purism like, say, Van Morrison's. He still injects enough of himself to keep above genericism. Having said that, one can't help feel that too much of this easy-going fare may eventually wear out his current re-deified status. Together Through Life isn't a classic but it's no Self Portrait either.