Together Through Life originated as a songwriting assignment. Bob Dylan was hired to write a ballad for the main character of Olivier Dahan’s My Own Love Song, which is set in the American South. In an interview on his website Dylan explains, “We started off with ‘Life Is Hard’ and then the record sort of took its own direction.” That “direction” leads Dylan and his band, augmented by Heartbreaker Mike Campbell on guitar and Los Lobos David Hildago on guitar and accordion, to join the music of the region with tales of love and woe written by Dylan and co-lyricist Robert Hunter.
Hildago’s accordion and Donny Herrron’s trumpet on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” provides a sound from the bayou as the narrator, likely down on his luck, has nothin’ but the love of his pretty baby, which is all he needs. A mandolin and steel guitar are up front, leading the ensemble on “Life Is Hard” while Dylan adds a weariness to his nasally delivery, as when he sings, “Admitting life is hard/ Without you near me.” It’s a touching song about the one who got away, likely reflected upon while drinking sorrows away.
With music co-credited to Willie Dixon, “My Wife’s Home Town” is a blues tune about a guy seemingly trapped in a love affair, bewitched by affections that can turn a good man bad. “If You Ever Go To Houston” is a country tune with the narrator offering advice about traveling the Lone Star state from the adventures he’s had.
“Jolene” is a blues tune that swings and sways, likely reminiscent of her hips on the dance floor. She breaks hearts without even trying and makes “a dead man rise and holler she's the one.” The guitarists trade licks and should get a rise out of the listener. This could have been about the homewrecker Dolly Parton sings about from a different point of view, but their eyes are different colors. The band’s musical journey takes them to the Southwest as the accordion-led Tex-Mex arrangement of “This Dream of You,” written solely by Dylan, backs the narrator’s tale of denial as he keeps “living on” through the dream of a former relationship.
“Shake Shake Mama” brings back the blues on this tale of infatuation. Considering the narrator’s baby is “walking with the village priest” in “I Feel A Change Comin’ On,” that change is likely marriage. The lyric, “And I just can't wait/ wait for us to become friends,” documents the best part of spending your life with someone, hopefully finding that best friend to live out the rest of your days with.
“It’s All Good” has an upbeat, Zydeco sound to punctuate the positive outlook about life in the face of many troubles. The narrator sings about “Big politician telling lies/…Wives are leavin’ their husbands/…Cold-blooded killer stalkin’ the town.” It would be understandable for someone to give up when “Everywhere you look there's more misery,” yet he makes clear while “It’s hard to believe”…“there’s nothing to worry about, cause it’s all good.” This is a great song to dance the blues away.
While the lyrics don’t contain the same level of poetry and wordplay Dylan has delivered in the past, as evidenced by weak lines like “Down every street there’s a window/ And every window’s made of glass,” the music is the album’s driving force. Dylan and the band delving into different folk music genres on Together Through Life is reminiscent of the field recordings by Alan Lomax, making for a good sampler of the Southern United States.