In 2009, the year Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the times really are
a-changin’, not least because the most powerful man in the world describes Bob Dylan as an icon and claims to have “probably 30 Dylan songs on my iPod”. So what does the contrary old curmudgeon Dylan go and do? He dismisses politics as “entertainment” and “a sport” and makes an album that he describes as having “more of a romantic edge”.
Dylan’s 33rd studio album came about when he was asked to record a song for a film by French director Olivier Dahan; after laying down ‘Life Is Hard’, he got carried away and made an entire album. As a result of the spontaneous nature of its inception, ‘Together Through Life’ sounds loose and informal, and you get the impression that its creator had a lot of fun making it. A shame, then, that it’s not quite as much fun to listen to.
Anyone who has heard Dylan’s incredible Theme Time Radio Hour show will know that the man has impeccable taste. He sequences Hank Ballard next to the Beastie Boys, because he can. For some reason, though, with his more recent recorded output it’s like musical development ended in the ’50s – in the case of this album, with its bluesy struts such as ‘Forgetful Heart’ and ‘Jolene’ (no, not that one, sadly) specifically at Chess Records’ studios in Chicago. There’s nothing wrong with playing the blues and no-one’s expecting Dylan to be too up-to-date (we’re still trying to forget about that Mark Ronson remix). It’s just that when his grizzled, Chief Wiggum-style voice is backed with more interesting production than this, it makes things more, well, interesting. It’s no coincidence that the Daniel Lanois-produced ‘Time Out Of Mind’ is one of his finest albums. Here, under his Jack Frost moniker, Dylan produces himself, which means that, as well as the rootsy, ‘Basement Tapes’-esque ‘This Dream Of You’ we get throwaway shuffles such as ‘Shake, Shake Mama’.
‘Life Is Hard’, the song that spawned the album, is the highlight. It’s a heartbreaking, countrified lament worthy of Hank Williams and a reminder that, even in his darkest days, Dylan’s albums always had one great song on them, just to keep the faithful living in hope. That’s not to say ‘Together Through Life’ is as bad as ‘Knocked Out Loaded’ or ‘Empire Burlesque’, but it probably won’t end up on Obama’s iPod either.