Let me begin by saying that I have not heard Together Through Life. I did stream the first single, Beyond Here Lies Nothin', and although it is-- typical of '00s Bob Dylan-- yet another 12 bar blues, it sounds awesome.
I've been reading some of the reviews, which are by-and-large positive, but they also tend to describe the record along the lines of "light", "breezy", and "impersonal." While that sounds like it adds up to something fun, it also illuminates what I believe is a valid criticism of most of Dylan's work:
That would be that Dylan shows so little of his true self in most of his songs. He is so gifted when it comes to inventing characters and telling their stories, but sometimes I think he uses that as a mask/crutch to avoid exposing his true psyche to the public.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. I don't think that I, placed in his shoes, could really become a heart-on-sleeve balladeer who shares a little bit of my soul with each public release. I completely understand Bob Dylan's emotional reticence in that regard.
But what strikes me is that Dylan's '60s contemporaries who remain relevant in 2009-- and the two names that spring to mind first are Neil Young and Joni Mitchell-- have built careers around songs that really do expose their beliefs and emotions. Each of the three have faced peaks and valleys in their careers-- most notable in that all 3 sucked ass for nearly all of the '80s.
But think about Bob Dylan specifically, and his career trajectory. He began as a protest singer. Politics and social justice formed the first shield between him and his public. He even affected his voice (you can hear him singing in pure form on Nashville Skyline) both to distinguish himself from other folk singers, but also (I'd argue) to keep the real Bob Dylan a little removed from what the public saw.
On Another Side of Bob Dylan, we saw... well, just that. Songs like "My Back Pages" revealed the man's psyche (at least a little piece of it) and the public and critical response was tremendous. But just as quickly, Dylan started building new veneers to protect his inner self from his listening audience. Humor helped in this regard. "Maggie's Farm" and "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" are great songs, highly entertaining, and ultimately tell you nothing about the man singing them. Perhaps parts of the lyrics are true; perhaps no part of them is. We don't know, and admittedly, the mystery therein is a huge part of Bob Dylan's appeal.
As Dylan plugged in, he started using his swagger and star persona as his shield. Songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues", "Like a Rolling Stone," and "Ballad of a Thin Man" taught the likes of David Bowie and Lou Reed how to be rock stars (even if Bowie would later lash out at Dylan), but they didn't show us anything we could prove was a reflection of the man singing them.
I can't go through every era in Bob Dylan's career-- he's released 46 albums for crying out loud-- but consider the other things he's hidden his true self behind: genre (Nashville Skyline), storytelling (John Wesley Harding), Christianity (Slow Train Coming) and olde tyme cowboy blues (past decade).
Interestingly enough, the albums where Dylan has let down his guard-- Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Time Out of Mind-- have been some of the best received of his career. But even those are only partly confessional. While Blood on the Tracks has "If You See Her, Say Hello," it also has the yarn-spinning of "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." While Desire has "Sara", it also has tall tales like "Isis" and a return to politics on "Hurricane." Modern Times, for what it's worth, was pretty "confessional" by Dylan standards. And you know what? I'd credit that, in part, for the tremendous reception it received.
So am I somehow suggesting Bob Dylan is inferior to more heart-on-sleeve '60s survivors like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell? Hell no! I love every non-personal twist Bob Dylan has taken over his 46 albums. (Well I don't know about the Christian stuff, but honestly I haven't heard much of it.)
More than anything, I guess I'm remarking on the unusual circumstance of a folk-based singer thriving through 5 decades with so little of his true personal self revealed. I wouldn't change it for the world-- I'm not one to try to "improve" a 98% perfect product. Really this is just my observation and, hopefully, a discussion starter.