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Six Years Ago: Bob Dylan Gets Personal on ‘Together Through Life’

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Bob Dylan, commissioned to do some soundtrack work in 2008, kept recording with the assembled group — ultimately producing an idiosyncratic, powerfully personal album called Together Through Life.

It was, even then, a revelation in its stubborn unwillingness to move into the realm of Statements. Of Big Records. Of Career-Defining Blah Blah Blah. Dylan wanted to make a small record — focusing inward, talking about relationships with honesty and a ragged sense of humor — and he brilliantly succeeded.

Highlights included “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” and “My Wife’s Hometown,” both of which sounded like shambling leftovers from Dylan’s late-’80s sessions with Daniel Lanois — complete with surprising syncopation, biting guitar (courtesy of Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers fame) and fun, braying vocals. Dylan principally collaborated, instead, with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, a first since their time together on 1988’s lightly regarded Down in the Groove.

She can make things bad, she can make things worse. She’s got stuff more potent than a gypsy curse,” Dylan sang on ‘My Wife’s Hometown,’ with a sly wink. “One of these days, I’ll end up on the run. I’m pretty sure she’ll make me kill someone.” Only later do we learn that his spouse resides in Hell. The loping “If You Ever Go to Houston” — “you’d better walk right!,” Dylan crooned — was a playful bit of songcraft, too, made complete with this swaying accordion contribution by David Hildago of Los Lobos. “This Dream of You,” in what amounts to a mariachi mash note, was as sweet as it is charming.

There was an intimacy, and a loose musical feel, about this appropriately titled project that’s reminiscent of a bottle-passing night of music among old friends. If the organic Together Through Life still sounds more pleasing than it does groundbreaking, well, that too seems brave for someone carrying around the expectations associated with being Bob Dylan. After all, all of the world’s problems wither under the glare of an angry woman: “State gone broke, the county’s dry,” Dylan sings, “Don’t be lookin’ at me with that evil eye!” He clearly was having fun. And pretty soon, you are too, as Dylan scoots and flirts (no kidding) through a rocker like “Shake Shake Mama.”

He still explored darker emotions, as on the bluesy “Forgetful Heart” — memorable for a funky, misshapen solo by Campbell at its middle. And he still opened himself to tender vulnerability on cuts like “Life Is Hard,” an almost slow-motion moment of nostalgia. (Dylan’s bare-seamed late-career singing is particularly effective on the latter, as he brings a broken dignity to a lyric about lost love.) But, before long, Dylan can be found brushing off a lifetime of incessant examination and over-thought interpretations with the Cajun-spiced “It’s All Good”: “Brick by brick they tear you down. … You oughta know, if they could they would,” Dylan sang. “I wouldn’t change it even if I could. You know what they say: It’s all good.”

By turns chummily tuneful, emotionally pungent and toss-off hilarious, the unforced Together Through Life is the sound of your average legend being what most would never dare be: real.

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