I greeted ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing‘ with some ambivalence: its melody seemed thin (and appropriated), its structure straightforward, and its lyrics simply stated. Having been listening to the album which it trailed, the song seems in many ways a good calling card for the entirety of Together Through Life. It is a measurable step down from the albums of the late trilogy in terms of density and richness; it lacks much in the way of a singularly expressed vision; and very few of its songs are memorably fresh.
Take ‘If You Ever Go to Houston’, one of the songs which sticks with me after a listen to the record. Its refrain, repeated both as first and final line and throughout, ‘If you ever go to Houston, you’d better walk right,’ is lifted straight from Leadbelly’s classic country blues, ‘Midnight Special’. You can almost sing the verses of that song to those of this – it’s not like Dylan is even trying to hide or refashion his borrowings, as he did on ‘Love and Theft’. The song denies the communal release of the chorus, which a listener with knowledge of Leadbelly will constantly be cueing in his mind, but whether this has relevance is hard to tell. ‘I know these streets, I’ve been here before,’ Dylan sings, ‘I nearly got killed here during the Mexican war.’ A reference to the Texan lines in Brownsville girl (“Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back /I would have gone on after you but I didnt feel like letting my head get blown off”) or just an easy rhyme? “Something always keeps me coming back for more / I know these streets I’ve been here before,” is the sole circular clue the listener is given.
If it is hard to discern an attempt to reuse a song intelligently, it’s probably a sign than no such reuse is in action. Though Sam Haist argues that production and subject matter make this album a truer part of a reconfigured trilogy, along with ‘Love and Theft’ and Modern Times, those albums were obviously refashioning the source material. It is harder to see that process, or at least see it so dynamically, on Together Through Life. Recently Bob was asked by Bill Flanagan if the Jolene mentioned in the song of the same name on the new album was the same Jolene who appears in Dolly Parton’s famed song. “It’s a different lady,” he replied, but we ask ‘so what?’ The song has the lyric, ‘Jolene, Jolene / Baby, I am the king and you are the queen.’ Different lady, yes, but the real question is: is she as interesting? In the first part of that interview, though, we got somewhere:
I see that my audience now doesn’t particularly care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up. […] Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it.
“People think they know, but they’re all wrong,” Dylan sings on ‘Jolene’. And Together Through Life can indeed be seen as a deliberate sidestep, away from the dark dwinling of his last three albums, from the Ovid quotations and the love and theft, and towards something lighter and more open. This is not to say that the album is optimistic: in lines like ‘I feel a change coming on / But the fourth part of the day is already gone,’ a strong dose of scepticism in these Yes We Can times. There is still a sense of decline about the record (beyond here lies nothin’), but it doesn’t try to dress it up. ‘I Feel A Change Comin’ On’ is a highlight of the album, and when Dylan sings baldly on a song like that, “Dreams never do it for me, anyway / Even when they did come true,” it’s still worth listening: Together Through Life is a contrary album, and part of its modestly-expressed project is to imagine things more plainly.
“Talk about me, baby, if you must,” Dylan snarls on ‘It’s All Good’, a song in which the world is going to hell in a handbasket whilst Dylan just sticks with a blasé catchphrase, parodying the wishful thinking of failing dreamers. And it don’t take much to fall apart, sometimes the process is incremental and barely noticeable: “Brick by brick they tear you down / A teacup of water is enough to drown.” It’s a common blues trick to cover dangerous sedition in innocuous verbiage, often about a woman doing you wrong: “Life is hard without you near me,” Dylan sings on the song which kicked off the recording of this album, ‘Life is Hard’. He is singing to someone he once held close but who has let him down. “My dreams are locked and barred, admitting life is hard,” he opines, and we begin to wonder if the dreams he sings about are the love which has done him wrong.
Throughout the record, David Hidalgo’s accordion twists the blues of Dylan’s touring band towards the border. On ‘This Dream of You’, both recurrng motifs reach their crescendo, with the band decamping to El Paso and Dylan, singing surprisingly tenderly for a man with a shot voice, about the motivational qualities of a dream: “I don’t wanna believe, but I keep believing it,” he tells us, contradicting the glib dismissal of ‘I Feel A Change Coming On’. In truth, Together Through Life is a snapshot of Dylan’s conflicted relationship with them: he loves you, pretty baby, even though you’ll lead him nowhere.
Still, much of the lyrical action happens in a very few songs: ‘My Wife’s Home Town’ stretches a single joke (it’s Hell, ha-yuk ha-yuk) too far, and if Judge Simpson walking arond in ‘Shake Shake Mama’ is meant to represent anything but filling syncopation in a bluesy rag, he is lost on me. Together Through Life reminds the listening of Another Side of Bob Dylan or Slow Train Coming: a by-and-large pleasing experience with a few stand-out moments. Like those records, it sets out to disarm us: Dylan is not a sage here but a wry crooner in a Texan cantina. He’s not looking to make an ‘important’ work in the way we’ve come to understand it (and him) over the last three; Together Through Life is a listenable shuffler which doesn’t disconnect from the world and its hardships, but does direct towards them a cheeky wink. Maybe the last part of the day has come, and the dreamers are waking; but this is no border town of despair. The album is no complete statement, either, but its better songs coalesce humbly around the album’s musical mood – dusk on the plains – to lift the record above those paltry first impressions. Three and a half- but not quite four – stars.