A couple canoodles beneath the title Together Through Life on the cover of Bob Dylan’s latest. There’s no irony in that pairing of image and words, but the music quickly establishes that it has more than simple love songs to offer. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” kicks the album off with Dylan pledging devotion on the edge of an abyss. “We’ll keep on lovin’, pretty baby, for as long as love will last,” goes one line, but the there’s a barbed “why” buried in the next one: “Beyond here lies nothin’ but the mountains of the past.” Without love he’s nothing but another drifting soul.
Love might be all there is, but that doesn’t make it easy. The ups and downs of staying together dominate Together Through Life, whether it’s finding hell in a familiar place (“My Wife’s Home Town”) or recognizing that the foundation of a relationship has developed cracks that nothing can patch (“Forgetful Heart”). Dylan wrote the lyrics to all but one song in collaboration with Grateful Dead wordman Robert Hunter, but whatever the distribution of labor, the voice sounds like his own.
For all the pain and peril of the lyrics, there’s a lot of sly humor, too, underlined by the album’s loose, joyful sound. Working with his touring band plus Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Tom Petty guitarist Mike Campbell, Dylan wraps the songs in arrangements that look back through the decades without owing allegiance to any particular roots. Dylan and the band use touches of blues and zydeco and whatever else is lying around alternately to lament and celebrate love, all while acknowledging that even at its worst it beats facing the world alone.