Bob Dylan’s always been far more a fabulist of American music than a folklorist. His strongest work mines American music traditions—not just folk but country, the blues, and rock ’n’ roll—but he’s at his best when he’s wrapping them up into something that makes no formal distinctions. Something, in fact, like the best songs on Together Through Life, like “Life Is Hard,” with its echoes of string music, early 20th-century pop, and country blues, or the Cajun-flavored “If You Ever Go to Houston.” Or the fuzzed-out “Forgetful Heart,” a reminder of Dylan’s black-leather and motorcycles period.
Then there’s the glaring “My Wife’s Home Town,” essentially a rewrite of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “Jolene.” David Hidalgo’s accordion—a highlight across the disc—and Mike Campbell’s understated guitar save both songs from being turgid blues stomps, but just barely. “Shake Shake Mama,” the other blues number, also includes bits of R&B and Dylan’s mid-’60s music, opening it up and moving it forward.
Together Through Life was reportedly inspired by old Chess and Sun records, polyglot labels from the era when white and black music, secular and sacred, rural and urban, all got mixed up to form rock ’n’ roll and R&B. When Dylan follows through with that, the album works. When he doesn’t, it falls short.