A magnificent songwriter and bonafide cultural icon, Bob Dylan has never been a truly skilled recording artist in the sense of using the studio as a versatile tool in enlarging the scope of his music. On the contrary, his best recordings are those in which savvy musicians capture their chemistry by instinct, inspired by the great material they’ve been given to play. That’s not what happens on this new album.
Informality does offer some charm throughout Together Through Life, but it’s merely superficial on "Beyond Here Lies Nothing." The opener is lightweight, albeit engagingly so, and it might serve as pure pacing in juxtaposition to a truly memorable song and performance. But it's hard to take "Life Is Hard" at face value: like the over-obvious closer “It’s All Good,” Dylan's stilted delivery of the lyrics denies the irony.
The refrain of "My Wife's Hometown" is fairly witty but sounds misogynist at worst, and mean-spirited at best, as it progresses. It's a slightly modified blues progression, thankfully credited to Willie Dixon, the likes of which Dylan has worked wonders throughout his career. Yet it is nothing less than perverse to hire Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and relegate him to accordion here (and throughout the album), where he could otherwise set this static track on fire with his expressive blues rock electric guitar playing.
Likewise, Tom Petty's second-in-command Heartbreaker Mike Campbell might've ignited the smoldering "Foolish Heart” had he been given more room to play rather than just supply fills around what is arguably the most honest Dylan vocal on the album. With the core of Dylan’s road band participating here--multi-guitarist Dan Herron, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile--the addition of two ace fretboardists should've led to some truly fiery playing, even on "This Dream of You," a Tex-Mex nugget Bob might've handed over to Doug Sahm if The Texas Tornado were still alive.
By the time “Shake Shake Mama” appears, the thought occurs Dylan doesn't take himself seriously enough to express much of anything too deeply felt, which is perhaps why he collaborated with Robert Hunter: to give shape to vague notions he doesn't have the self-discipline to craft on his own. But the longtime Grateful Dead lyricist’s eloquent command of language is rarely evident except during "I Feel A Change Comin' On." Dylan sounds truly engaged in his performance and, as his voice contrasts the lighthearted chord progression, you might think he was addressing himself (either that or Hunter’s sending his co-author a message as he used to in later days working with Jerry Garcia).
Hearing this new work of Dylan invariably prompts recollection of the sublime Dylan archive release from last fall, Tell Tale Signs; what superior work from the Together Through Life sessions might see the light of day years from now?