Of course, it should not matter that Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter co-wrote all but one song on the new Bob Dylan record. But there is something unsettling about the greatest lyricist of all time going to the hippie Diane Warren. Certainly this is not the first time Dylan has gone for a ringer; Jacques Levy co-authored much of Desire. (In an interview to promote Together Through Life on bobdylan.com, Dylan was asked about the lyrics of the song “Joey” off Desire, and replied, “Really? I wouldn’t know. Jacques Levy wrote the words. Jacques had a theatrical mind, and he wrote a lot of plays. So the song might have been theater of the mind. I just sang it.”) It’s unlikely “Joey” is anybody’s favorite Dylan song, but “Hurricane”—another track off Desire—certainly benefited from theatrical insight. Dylan has also co-written with Sam Shepard, so collaboration is not unknown to him.
But Robert Hunter is another matter—at least for the songs Bob Dylan is writing now. Why is Hunter there? Hunter’s clever-yet-bemused language is an odd choice. Since Dylan’s 2001 return-to-form masterpiece Love and Theft, his melodies have gotten simpler, and his lyrics more Spartan. As a vocalist, Dylan has become ever more adept at using the remains of his voice to mimic the old bluesmen he admires so much. And, essentially, Together Through Life does not alter that formula much, beyond changing up the arrangements to include an accordion.
But Hunter’s showy wordsmithing occasionally does obscure Dylan’s simplicity. This could make for a fascinating contrast had Dylan composed these lyrics; yet knowing of Hunter’s involvement, one can’t help but see songs like “My Wife’s Home Town” and “If You Ever Go to Houston” as more in the lyrical tradition of “Silvio” (an earlier Hunter/Dylan collaboration), rather than as a strange new aberration in Dylan’s own lyrical journey. And as a result, on these songs, you can’t help wondering if the master once again “just sang it.”
Even with Hunter’s involvement, though, Together Through Life’s 10 songs continue Dylan’s string of creatively vibrant records that meditate on late life in America with uncanny dignity and originality—even if this time, the ultimate original artist opted for a helping hand.