Everything seems to come with a price in the music of Bob Dylan.
Take the characters who inhabit Together Through Life, a quickly assembled set of new songs co-written by Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and cut with jagged spontaneity by Dylan's road band — and a few friends — last fall. Seemingly designed for hard times, they search like nomads for love and tranquility but have to crawl through deceit, even murder, to find anything remotely close to a promised land.
Where does this rough and rootsy parade wind up? Why, with It's All Good, which might go down as one of Dylan's penultimate gag tunes. Good? Is he kidding? The song chugs along with a wary boogie groove as politicians flaunt corruption, killers stalk towns, neighborhoods crumble and misery engulfs the land. Even Dylan's own profile takes a beating: "Talk about me, babe, if you must. Throw out the dirt, pile on the dust."
Fittingly, Together Through Life begins with an even bigger storm: a ruptured rhumba called Beyond Here Lies Nothin'. It professes love at the edge of doomsday — specifically, streets of busted windows that outline "mountains of the past."
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What a choice — Dylan's love sung with dry-heaving devotion or oblivion.
The sound of such romanticism is fleeting and fascinating in an almost Tom Waits-like way. Instead of the warmer, minstrel-like facades of 2001's Love and Theft or the more deliberate stillness of 2006's Modern Times, Together Through Life colors stories of truly desperate love in brittle electric shells that at times sound like vintage Mississippi blues records. The drive then intensifies thanks to cameos by longtime Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell and swings to troubled border towns with accordion strides from Los Lobos' David Hidalgo. The album is, in many ways, a rural record that travels through some very troubled recesses of the South.
But there is a wonderful immediacy to this music, too. Together Through Life is the fourth studio album of new songs since Dylan became vital and relevant again in 1997. It is also the least approachable. Even when the accordion orchestration lightens on If You Ever Go to Houston, the mood remains tense. Dylan's Houston is decidedly not set in the present. It is an outlaw town that calls for tight gun belts and detached cunning.
Wild humor lives along these mean streets, too. My Wife's Home Town is set, unsurprisingly, in hell, where women goad their willing husbands into murderous deeds ("I lost my reasons long ago; my love for her is all I know"). But when we hear Dylan's hoarse cackle as the song fades, one has to wonder who the real devil is here.
Half vaudevillian, half ravaged troubadour, Dylan works more in a circling pattern on Together Through Life than on his last three critically lauded albums. While the bluesy, border-town feel is thoroughly absorbing, Together Through Life is, lyrically, like a walk in the desert. This music is arid, ominous and unrelenting. And forget salvation as its reward. Dylan is simply looking for a little human emotion on these songs.
Ultimately, though, Together Through Life is not a weighty album. In fact, Dylan all but grins like a Cheshire cat through his new music. There indeed might be "nothin'" up ahead. But Dylan offers enough wicked desperation from the here and now as compensation.