Since 1962, there have been three things certain in life: death, taxes, and a new Bob Dylan studio album every couple of years. And next week will see the release of Dylan’s latest studio recording – his 33rd, to be exact – entitled Together Through Life. The album, thrown together in far less time than 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times, serves as a musical departure from those aforementioned masterpieces.
With its own distinct instrumentation (with heavy use of the accordion), Together Through Life is Dylan’s latest attempt at reinventing his sound, shying away from the oldies rock vibe he had established on Love and Theft. Ultimately, though Together Through Life is certainly not Dylan’s most polished album, it still ranks as one of his better ones, filled with some of Dylan’s most poignant and entertaining songs of the last decade. And, though its sound is different, the album retains what are arguably Dylan’s most distinctive musical traits since Love and Theft: a snarling growl and a pissed-off and jaded outlook on life.
Album opener and first single “Beyond Here Lies Nothin” starts things off with an almost R&B flavor, eerily reminiscent of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love.”
Instrumentally, the song is a departure from anything found on Dylan’s last two albums, though his voice retains the husky, smoke-ravaged sound fans have lately come to expect from the 68-year-old icon. As the record continues, Dylan serves up a number of standout bluesy numbers, such as “My Wife’s Home Town” and “Shake Shake Mama”; the songs’ rollicking drumbeat and sparse, intricate electric guitar use complement his voice perfectly.
And with some of the slower songs, Bob attempts something he’s hardly done these days: emphasize a melody. Standouts “Life is Hard” and “This Dream of You” showcase Dylan hitting higher notes – in a softer tone – than we’ve heard from him in a long time. On “Life is Hard,” Dylan repeatedly croons, “My dreams are locked and barred/ Admitting life is hard/ Without you near me.”
Dylan closes the album on a strong note with arguably two of the best songs of his later years: second single “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” and the humorous “It’s all Good,” both of which perfectly illustrate the two very distinct natures of Dylan. On the one hand, “I Feel a Change. . .” is arguably one of Dylan’s most refreshingly happy songs to date, as he joyously sings what could be considered his most “pop” song in a while. Still, it’s the lyrics that really shine: “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m reading James Joyce/ Some people they tell me, I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice,” – a line that perhaps only Dylan could get away with.
“It’s all Good,” on the other hand, shows us a less lighthearted, more cynical and growling Dylan, as he mocks one of the most overused and meaningless phrases of modern culture by juxtaposing it with descriptions of hypothetical tragedies.
Of course, there are a few missteps in Together Through Life, most notably songs “If you Ever Go to Houston” and “Jolene,” which both seem to drag on needlessly with a repetitive and uninspiring melody and instrumentation. “Forgetful Heart,” meanwhile, sounds like an early version of Modern Times’ “Ain’t Talkin’,” using a nearly identical haunting melody.
Though not the masterpiece his last two albums were, Together Through Life is a welcome surprise for Dylan fans, offering up a few gems and an overall solid collection of new, distinct material. And the album art – a photo of two lovers in the backseat of a car – is by far his most compelling in decades.
Whether it’s a love album, a cynical album, or an album that deals with loss is anyone’s guess; all that’s certain is that Together Through Life is a noteworthy and respectable entry into the Dylan catalogue of 33 studio albums. It serves as yet another means for Dylan to reach his lifelong audience with his wise and clever growl of a voice.