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Bob Dylan can’t even get a decent drink in his wife’s backwater of a hometown, and maybe that’s why he carries a gun during most of his new one, Together Through Life. He’s just an ordinary citizen, looking for someone to love, in “If You Ever Go to Houston,” a town where firearms are probably advisable, and he figures he might have to shoot his way past his latest love’s daddy in “Jolene,” which isn’t the Dolly Parton song. “Mr. Policeman, can you help me find my gal?” he asks in the former. This doesn’t make him a rube, exactly, but his faith in public servants is almost as touching as his belief in true love and the healing properties of the Chess blues shuffles that he favors here. He’s remembered to forget to remember, or something along those lines—who can keep track anymore?
So “My Wife’s Home Town” turns out to be hell, which might be the bad, hot place or just some American burg that’s even worse—you know, one of those state capitals shoved way off into flyover country, or a Southern city where you can’t even find a decent barbecue sandwich because they tore down the rib shack to make room for a Starbucks that went out of business after only a year. Dylan is hanging out, working on his tan, but he can’t quite remember why he’s there. “Well, there’s reasons for that/And reasons for this/I can’t think of any just now/But I know they exist,” he explains. Wherever she comes from, his wife is a slow drag, just like the track itself, which adds David Hidalgo’s accordion to a basic blues structure.
As is usual for Dylan, Together splits the difference between formal savvy and pure lassitude, making it work more often than not. “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ ” leads things off with the band deftly turning around the beat and ends cold, or so you think—Zimmerman’s boys add a little rumble of an afterthought to a minor-key blues that takes off from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talkin’.” Pleasant reminders of old, discarded harmonic language show up in “Life Is Hard,” while “Jolene” is another Chess shuffle and “This Dream of You” plays tricks with its time signature. “Shake Shake Mama” suggests soul music—it wouldn’t be out of place on a Hacienda Brothers record—and Hidalgo is superbly empathetic throughout Together‘s 10 tracks.
“I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver/And I’m reading James Joyce,” Dylan sings in “I Feel a Change Comin’ On.” He might as well, since there’s not much else to do in this vision of American life. Everything is disappearing: Buildings decay, wives stray, and Dylan himself can’t even remember the day he met his wife. The dry county that comprises that hellish hometown isn’t much inspiration, either. The bard remembers some good times in Dallas and asks us to look up Mary Ann, Lucy, and Nancy if we get down there any time soon, but he’s not counting on us. As he suggests, “Hang that gun belt tight” if you plan vacation travel in these United States. It’s good advice.
In the end, it’s all good, as he sings in the record’s closing moments. Illness and desertion, widows and orphans—hell, you’re still alive, even if the day is almost gone. If you’re stuck in Jefferson City for the weekend, apply your sunblock out by the kiddie pool and dream in the faded afternoon. But don’t forget these lines, smart guy: “Dreams never did work for me, anyway/Even if they did come true.”