by Rick Rockwell
Some of the most intriguing aspects of Bob Dylan’s latest studio release Together Through Life are the Latin-inspired arrangements laid over a bluesy foundation. At times this mix gives the work a cinematic feel. At other times, the simple results are the answer to the question: what if Dylan decided to dabble with conjunto.
David Hidalgo, the leader of Los Lobos joins Dylan’s touring band and other key guests for this record and his presence spells all the difference. On the lead track and single “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” Hidalgo’s stabbing guitar solos recall the best of his band from East LA. Dylan’s shattered voice croaks out the despair-filled lyrics while the band cooks. Donny Heron’s restrained trumpet fills give the song the perfect smoky late night edge.
But perhaps Hidalgo’s greatest contribution to Together Through Life is his accordion work. Dylan, who self-produced the record, laces Hidalgo’s accordion throughout every track, which gives large swaths of the record a Tex-Mex or norteño atmosphere. With this technique the ironic closer “It’s All Good” acquires a zydeco flavor thanks to Hidalgo’s contributions.
One of the other great achievements of Together Through Life is that it unites the various strains of Dylan’s influence. Mike Campbell of the Heartbreakers (representing the Tommy Petty/Byrds wing of the Church of Dylan) provides stalwart if restrained lead guitar throughout and his incendiary guitar duets with Hidalgo are set subtly underneath the main mix to provide a certain sonic tension to various numbers, especially “Jolene.” Also along for this long strange bluesy trip is Robert Hunter, the long-time lyricist for the Grateful Dead (representing the psychedelic wing of the Church of Dylan) who co-wrote with Dylan all but one of the album’s ten songs.
However, when Together Through Life isn’t loping along the border, shuffling through an after-hours East LA bar, or slow-roasting like a Texas roadhouse on a Saturday night, it evokes the sound of urban Chicago blues. Dylan has told interviewers he felt the quickly recorded album was searching for a groove more common with records released by Chess or Sun Records in the 1950s.
Dylan’s appreciation for the blues is evident on this his 33rd studio release. On “My Wife’s Home Town” Dylan and Hunter stitch new lyrics on to “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” originally from legendary bluesman Willie Dixon. (And notably, unlike others, Dylan and Hunter acknowledge Dixon in the songwriting credits.) Dylan’s cackling devilish coda to the song shows just how much fun the 67-year-old singer-songwriter had recording this album. “Shake Shake Mama” is another urban blues number that lives up to its title.
Although most of Together Through Life is a rollicking roadhouse toss off by the Bard of Rock, the last two songs on the album may have more weight. “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” could be read as Dylan’s acclamation of President Barack Obama’s political win and may be seen as a natural bookend to Dylan’s classic “Blowin’ in the Wind.” (However, note, Dylan and Hunter’s lyrics are far from upbeat: “Dreams never did work for me anyway / Even when they did come true.”) And then there’s the album closer, “It’s All Good,” which is Dylan with tongue set firmly in cheek singing satirically about coping with the world’s financial mess.
Although some have already written Together Through Life off as a fun but inconsequential Dylan release, the end result is just the opposite. By not trying too hard and having fun with the various elements of his craft, Dylan may have put together his most enjoyable album of the past decade. Dylan proves once again why he’s a master.
(The promotional photo of Bob Dylan is from Columbia Records. Dylan and his band will continue their world tour with a performance in Cardiff, Wales, UK today [Tuesday, April 28]. To see the official video for Dylan's "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," please check below.)
Together Through Life
Beyond Here Lies Nothin’
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by Rick Rockwell