Bob Dylan has sung in many voices on his records: the nasal-braying alarm of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; the acidic dismissal in “Like a Rolling Stone”; the country hermit on The Basement Tapes; the grizzly wisecracking drifter on 2001’s Love and Theft and 2006’s Modern Times. But Dylan, who turns 68 in May, has never sounded as ravaged, pissed off and lusty, all at once, as he does on Together Through Life. It is a murky-sounding, often perplexing record. The lyrics seem dashed off in spots, like first drafts, while the performances — by Dylan’s current touring band — feel like head arrangements caught on the run between Never Ending Tour dates. But there is a grim magnetism coursing through these 10 new songs — and most of it is in Dylan’s vividly battered singing.
The shock of his voice comes right away. Dylan starts the record as if he’s at a loss for words. “I love you, pretty baby/You’re the only love I’ve ever known/Just as long as you stay with me/The whole world is my throne,” he sings in the muddy samba “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” It is a plain, unpromising opening, except for the delivery: a deep, exhausted rasp that sounds like the singer has been beaten to a pulp, then left for dead at the side of the road. When Dylan gets to the title punch line in each verse, he grumbles it with an audible sneer. As far as he can tell, there isn’t much world left to sit on.
Dylan’s throat has never been anyone’s idea of clear and soaring. But as a young folk singer, he strained to sound older and more sorely tested than he was, as if he had known Charley Patton, A.P. Carter and the Great Depression firsthand. He’s finally there, with an authentically pitted instrument ideally suited to the devastated settings of these songs and the rusted desert-shed production (by Dylan under his usual pseudonym, Jack Frost): brushed-snare strolls and bar-band shuffles; bag-of-snakes guitars, with frequent stinging fills by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers; the rippled sigh and mocking laugh of an accordion icing most songs, played by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Compared to the Western-swing-like buoyance of Love and Theft and the Fifties-Chess-session air of Modern Times, this record sounds like it was cut in the dead-end Mexican border town in Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir, Touch of Evil, especially when Dylan gets to lines like the closing few in “Forgetful Heart,” a musky blend of banjo, dirty guitar and utter emotional defeat: “All night long/I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain/The door has closed forevermore/If indeed there ever was a door.”
That hardened, bleating voice is also perfect for these times: A nation drunk on hope less than six months ago now drowns in red ink and pink slips. “Some people they tell me/I got the blood of the land in my voice,” Dylan cracks in the Nashville Skyline-style sway of “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.” But the country in these songs is running on fumes, into brick walls. “State gone broke/The county’s dry/Don’t be looking at me with that evil eye,” Dylan snaps in the Chicago-blues lark “My Wife’s Home Town,” spitting the lines like a CNN news ticker. (The name of that town, according to Dylan: Hell.) “Shake Shake Mama,” a string of comic come-ons with a Louisiana juke-dance gait, ends not with scoring but dire warning: “If you’re goin’ on home, better go the shortest way.”
There is another line worth noting in “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” — “You are as whorish as ever” — and Dylan growls it like a compliment. Together Through Life is, in a surprisingly direct way, about the only thing you can count on when you’re surrounded by clowns, thieves and government (sometimes all the same thing) and what happens when you lose — or throw away — your good thing. In the slow hurt of “Life Is Hard,” Dylan bites down gently on each syllable, over soft-shoe drums and weeping pedal steel (“My dreams are locked and barred/Ad-mit-ting life is hard/With-out you near me”). And regret doesn’t get much better than his strict instructions in the final verse of “If You Ever Go to Houston,” a Doug Sahm-like shot of norteño R&B: “Find the barrooms I got lost in/And send my memories home/Put my tears in a bottle/Screw the top on tight.”
Ultimately, Together Through Life is a mixed bag of this decade’s Dylan — impulsive, caustic, sentimental, long done with the contrived details of contemporary record-making. The album may lack the instant-classic aura of Love and Theft or Modern Times, but it is rich in striking moments, set in a willful rawness, and comes with a wicked finish. “It’s All Good” is a bayou-John Lee Hooker boogie that opens with bad shit (“Big politician telling lies/Restaurant kitchen, all full of flies/Don’t make a bit of difference”) and just gets worse (“Brick by brick, they tear you down/A teacup of water is enough to drown”). It’s a portrait of an ugly America, devolving into bare-knuckle Darwinism — survival of the coldest and cruelest — and Dylan rubs your face in it. “It’s all good,” he sings repeatedly with a cruel shrug in that voice, knowing damn well it’s not. But Dylan is just as sure, in nearly every other song here, that there is strength in numbers — and that number is two.