The worst Bob Dylan album of all time is the one in which he joined up with the Grateful Dead for the Dylan & the Dead release. Twenty years after that disastrous merging, Dylan again looks to the Dead camp and calls up lyricist Robert Hunter to help out with album 33, and not just on a few cuts, but nearly every single one on Together Through Life. It’s an album that may not challenge Dylan & the Dead in terms of sheer blandness, but it comes close and it certainly knocks the wind out of Dylan’s late career winning streak.
Aside from a few unique forays into “Tex-Mex,” there’s little intrigue to be had at all, with everything sounding very much the age of Dylan himself and with none of the lyrics providing any insight to Zimmy’s mindset as he approaches 70. Instead, everything sounds like it was put together in haste with Dylan’s words taking shape as an afterthought.
I get the idea that Dylan makes the records that he wants to and that there’s no reason why he needs to consider what any of us should think the next step should be. But this seems like a patchwork, cobbled together from mundane musing on love and half-baked songs born out of movie soundtrack compositions instead of real inspiration. It is the sound of Dylan going though the motions with a very competent band who make each song sound like a dust-worn border town.
And then there’s the matter of Dylan’s voice, so wrecked at this point that you’ll cringe at the sight of Bob lighting up on the inside sleeve photograph. As wasted as it sounds, his voice may be the only truly intriguing thing that Bob contributes in Together. Everything else—either by pen or by phrasing—is just too cozy for its own good.
Even the arrangements sound congenial, like their true inspiration came from a couple of podcasts of his radio show instead of Dylan or Hunter’s prose. There’s no complaint about the performances mind you—they’re all nicely executed, well suited and completely forgettable—but when you’ve got Bobby phoning it in under the pretense of laid-back spontaneity, for fucks sake have someone spike the punch a get shit going. As talented as the musicians might actually be, they all sound like they’re sitting on their ass, working out after-hours Tex-Mex run-throughs and a few nods to the Chicago blues. It sounds like everyone had a swell time playing—hell, even Dylan busts out with a laugh on “My Wife’s Hometown,” but the thing about “after-hours” is that not all of us are invited to the show. The bar is closed, the doors locked, and we’re left outside, pining for a glimpse of greatness from a man with a well-documented past. You listen for those hints of greatness before realizing that the man is not the slightest bit concerned with it.
Because—and this is key—we understand that time is a precious commodity here. There’s a disservice to both himself and to those of us who love him when we see him spinning his wheels like with Together Through Life. We’re wanting every moment and every album to count from here on out, and we remember those years when Bobby’s releases were disappointing affairs. The slightest hint of a slowdown, particularly after coming off a few very good efforts, only gets me even more worried about album 34.