If Huckleberry Finn grew up to be a rock star …
If Vincent Price led a secret life as a Mississippi bluesman …
If Bob Dylan made a party album …
Wait! Bob Dylan DID make a party album. And it's good, and weird, and drunk, and flammable. The new Together Through Life is a hardscrabble hoot, with swarthy helpings of Huck and Vincent and banjo-kissed Americana ranging from Hannibal, Mizzou, to New Orleans to a town in Texas that just might fell our 67-year-old hero.
Okay, so Robert Allen Zimmerman's version of a party ain't exactly a part-tay, but the album (his 46th release) has a loose, one-off feel, especially following the weighty, weary award-winning triumvirate of Time Out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001) and Modern Times (2006).
Even the Voice of His Generation gets to cut loose now and then. All but one song was co-written with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter — the two last worked together on Dylan's '88 album Down in the Groove — and you can tell they had a ball.
If you've ever wondered what Bob Dylan's laugh sounds like, cue up the last-call blues of My Wife's Home Town (as in: "I just want to say that hell's my wife's hometown"). Partially credited to gutbucket legend Willie Dixon, the cut is so wicked ("She can make you steal / She can make you rob / Give you the hives / Make you lose your job") that Dylan punctuates it with a hearty laugh that sounds very much like the devil throwing pebbles at your bedroom window.
If you see Dylan cruising the online halls of eHarmony these days, you might want to steer clear. Dude is feeling down on romance, and great, gravelly chunks of Together Through Life are about bad love, and good love, and sweaty love, and love that steals your wallet. His killer backup band, including Heartbreaker guitarist Mike Campbell and Los Lobos squeezeboxer David Hidalgo, is in on the fun, and they dutifully drag the singer's cracked heart from Tex-Mex boogie (Shake Shake Mama) to dark riverboat rolls (Forgetful Heart) to dirty roadhouse blues (Beyond Here Lies Nothin').
The album's genesis goes something like this: Dylan was working on a soundtrack tune for French film director Oliver Dahan. The woe-is-me Life Is Hard sounds like something that could be plucked on the banks of a river — either the Mississippi or the Seine. From there, Dylan just kept writing, playing, the hard-luck songs rolling out with verve and hip-shaking snap. Boom like that: an album was born.
Together Through Life ultimately strays from the love theme and culminates with a return to present malaise and national disorder. Dylan the social critic delivers I Feel a Change Comin' On ("What's the use in dreaming / You got better things to do"). The song is slyly cutting and titularly provocative: Whenever the author of The Times They Are A-Changin' invokes c-h-a-n-g-e, you best listen up. Album closer It's All Good packs an even more jarring punch. Built on a raucous boogie beat, a true dance of damnation, the song reveals a caustic underbelly: "Widows cry / The orphans plea / Everywhere you look there's more misery / Come along with me, baby / I wish you would / You know what I'm saying / It's all good."
The party's over.
Everybody out of the water.
Mr. Dylan has work to do.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.