Bob Dylan, Together Through Life (Columbia)

The Adventures of Bob continue, and this time he gives himself over completely to the role of the roadhouse blues singer. On Together Through Life, he explores his ups and downs with women, a solid blues trope if there ever was one. When he sings “Jolene,” “Shake Shake Mama” and that Hell is “My Wife’s Hometown,” he does so in tones of voice that suggests he’s more interested in singing those types of songs than he is in the thoughts the songs express. He’s obviously taking pleasure in singing with a funky, physical band that this time out includes David Hidalgo on accordion, but it sometimes seems like all those songs offer us is the occasion to be entertained by the fun that Dylan is having.

Two of the most memorable tracks on the album are ballads. “Life is Hard” swings gently, and he treats the song like a standard whose semi-archaic language and goodness-from-another-age must be preserved. Still, like a good standard, the sweetness of the melody, the wounded performance and the can’t-make-it-without-you sentiment carry the song despite its seeming age. More compelling is “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” where he fits an age-appropriate romance into the roadhouse slow dance mode. Is there a more domestic, past-trying-to-seem-cool way to win a girl than to promise her, “If you want to live easy / baby, pack your clothes with mine”?

“It’s All Good” aspires to a gravity that the album only occasionally has, but the title phrase is already almost as dated as “Don’t go there” or “Talk to the hand,” rendering it a pet rock or tomagotchi piece of language, and impossible to take seriously. Better is “Forgetful Heart,” sung with a well-simmered rage. He takes the done-wrong song to the dark extreme where he suspects every aspect of the relationship. “The door has closed for ever more,” he sings, “if indeed there ever was a door.” Better is the album opener, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” It’s more apocalyptic in its bleakness as he tries to hang on to “this love that we call ours”—How’s that for a qualified assertion?—with the void closing in.

Together Through Life could use more void and more couched, qualified language. This time around, he has a co-writer, Robert Hunter, and it’s tempting to point to his influence in conventionalizing the songs. That’s not fair, though, since he didn’t force his way on to the album or coerce Dylan to use his contributions at gunpoint. Nonetheless, much of the album is awfully explicable, which would be fine for most artists, but it takes the richness from Dylan.