TERRY GROSS, host:
Bob Dylan has a new album called "Together Through Life". On every song but one, Dylan collaborates with lyricist Robert Hunter, a longtime friend best known for his songwriting with the Grateful Dead. Dylan produced the album himself, under the pseudonym Jack Frost. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(Soundbite of song, "This Dream Of You")
Mr. BOB DYLAN (Singer): (Singing) How long can I stay? In this nowhere café. 'fore night turns into day. I wonder why I'm so frightened of the dawn. All I have and all I know is this dream of you which keeps me living on. There's a moment when…
KEN TUCKER: You have to go back to the start of Bob Dylan's career to find the precedents for "Together Through Life." It's his first album in decades for which he didn't write all or virtually all the lyrics. Dylan wrote two original songs on his 1962 debut. Here, he's the sole author of one. Collaborating with Robert Hunter, Dylan strikes tones of wistfulness and wryness that rarely yield striking images - unless you count a phrase such as, the mountains of the past, as striking. But that doesn't mean the music isn't good and unsentimental.
(Soundbite of song, "Hell's My Wife's Hometown")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Well, I didn't come here, dear, with a doggone thing. I just came here to hear the (unintelligible). There ain't no way you can put me down, I just say want to say that hell's my wife's hometown.
TUCKER: "Hell's My Wife's Hometown" - now, that's pretty funny, pretty mean, pretty Dylan, also pretty Willie Dixon. The song is enough of a variation on Dixon's "I Just Want To Make Love To You" that Dylan credits the Chicago bluesman as a co-writer, although the sentiments of the two compositions could not be more different. Making love for Dixon, making the lover a battle-ax for Dylan. Elsewhere, Dylan is more breezy, more footloose, more willing to play out the role of a singing Texas cowboy.
(Soundbite of song, "If You Ever Go To Houston")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) If you ever go to Houston, better walk right. Keep your hands in your pockets, hang your gun belt tight. If you're asking for trouble, if you're looking for a fight, if you ever go to Houston, buddy, you better walk right. If you're ever down there...
TUCKER: The person pushing the accordion through that song is David Hidalgo of the great L.A. band Los Lobos. Working with Dylan's touring band and Tom Petty's longtime guitarist Mike Campbell, they all create thick, atmospheric music, music that's shaped to fit every nuance of a song.
(Soundbite of song, "Forgetful Heart")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Forgetful heart, lost your power of recall. Every little detail, you don't remember at all. The times we knew, who would remember better than you? Forgetful heart...
TUCKER: Throughout "Together Through Life," Dylan sings in cobwebbed moans, growling croons, and spoken-word chants. He does all three on that song, "Forgetful Heart." For a guy closing in on 68 years old, he sounds like a guy closing in on 68. But he's a spry one, as anyone who's gone to a Dylan concert in the past few years can attest. Touring almost nonstop, he makes thunderous music full of high-volume guitar work by others and squalling keyboards from the man himself. He likes to turn concert halls into honky tonks, as is suggested on a new song like this one, the bluesy shuffle "Jolene."
(Soundbite of song, "Jolene")
Mr. DYLAN: (Singing) Well, you're coming down High Street, walking in the sun, you make dead man rise (unintelligible), she's the one. Jolene, Jolene. Baby, I am the king and you're the queen.
TUCKER: A lot of the songs here are both intense and possessed by an effort to make everything seemed tossed-off, spontaneous. Dylan avoids irony on every song but "It's All Good" - that's pretty much all bad. The rest of the time, though, Dylan convinces you that his heart still throbs ardently for lovers both past and present. And that it's making music about that ardent passion that keeps his steady, unending labor rewarding, for him and for us, together through life.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Bob Dylan's 33rd solo album, "Together Through Life." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.