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Bob Dylan Takes His Latest Look At 'Life'

You have to go back to the start of Bob Dylan's career to find the precedents for Together Through Life. It's his first album in decades for which he didn't write all — or virtually all — of the lyrics. Dylan wrote two original songs on his 1962 debut; here, he's the sole author of one. Collaborating with Robert Hunter, Dylan strikes tones of wistfulness and wryness that rarely yield striking images, unless you count a phrase such as "the mountains of the past" as striking. But that doesn't mean the music isn't good and unsentimental.

"Hell's my wife's hometown" — pretty funny, pretty mean, pretty Dylan. Also pretty Willie Dixon: The song is enough of a variation on Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" that Dylan credits the Chicago bluesman as a co-writer, although the sentiments of the two compositions couldn't be more different — making love for Dixon, making the lover a battleaxe for Dylan. Elsewhere, Dylan is more breezy, more footloose, more willing to play out the role of a singing Texas cowboy.

The person pushing the accordion through "If You Go to Houston" is David Hidalgo of the great L.A. band Los Lobos. Working with Dylan's touring band and Tom Petty's longtime guitarist, Mike Campbell, they all create thick, atmospheric music — music that's shaped to fit every nuance of a song.

Throughout the album, Dylan sings in cobwebbed moans, growling croons and spoken-word chants. He does all three on that song, "Forgetful Heart." For a guy closing in on 68, he sounds like, well, a guy closing in on 68. But he's a spry one, as anyone who's gone to a Dylan concert in the past few years can attest. Touring almost non-stop, he makes thunderous music, full of high-volume guitar work by others and squalling keyboards from the man himself. He likes to turn concert halls into honky-tonks, as is suggested on a new song like the bluesy shuffle "Jolene."

A lot of the songs here are both intense and possessed by an effort to make everything seemed tossed-off and spontaneous. Dylan avoids irony on every song but "It's All Good," which is pretty much all bad. The rest of the time, though, Dylan convinces you that his heart still throbs ardently for lovers past and present, and that it's making music about that ardent passion that keeps his steady, unending labor rewarding — for him and for us, together through life.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.