Bob Dylan wrote all but one of the album’s songs with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, with whom he had previously co-written two songs on his 1988 album Down in the Groove. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Dylan commented on the collaboration: “Hunter is an old buddy, we could probably write a hundred songs together if we thought it was important or the right reasons were there… He’s got a way with words and I do too. We both write a different type of song than what passes today for songwriting.”
Dylan produced the record under his pseudonym of Jack Frost, which he used for his previous two studio albums, Love and Theft and Modern Times. The album was rumored to contain “struggling love songs” and have little similarity to Modern Times.
In a conversation with music journalist Bill Flanagan, published on Bob Dylan’s official website, Flanagan suggested a similarity of the new record to the sound of Chess Records and Sun Records, which Dylan acknowledged as an effect of “the way the instruments were played.” He said that the genesis of the record was when French film director Olivier Dahan asked him to supply a song for his road movie, My Own Love Song, which became Life is Hard – indeed, ‘according to Dylan, Dahan was keen to get a whole soundtrack’s worth of songs from the man’ – and “then the record sort of took its own direction.”
As with some of Dylan’s albums before Together Through Life, Dylan has adapted lyrics from other songs and incorporated them into his own lyrics—if with perhaps a ‘slightly diminished use of the light-fingered lift’, compared with ‘Dylan’s lyrical approach from recent albums’. The phrase “If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right” is taken from the folk song Midnight Special : Dylan played harmonica on Harry Belafonte‘s 1962 recording of the song. ‘The one time he overtly used someone else’s song as a springboard for his own – Billy Joe Shaver‘s Ain’t No God in Mexico, a clear template for I Feel a Change Comin’ On – he openly acknowledged the debt to historian Douglas Brinkley’. Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ is the opening track of this album. The title is a quote from the Ancient Roman poet Ovid: “Beyond here lies nothing but chillness, hostility, frozen waves of an ice-hard sea.” (Poems from Exile). It bears a very significant resemblance to the original 1958 song All Your Love (I Miss Loving) by Otis Rush.