- 09 Sep 01
For the most part, Love and Theft is made up of two distinct musical strands, blues-based floor-shakers and romantic, ragtimey ballads.
Welcome to Bob Dylan’s swinging sixties. And his fearless forties. And his roaring twenties. If this is theft, it’s the crime of the century, as Dylan raids a hundred years of American music. And if it’s love, it’s the infectious passion of a man who, in returning to the roots of it all, appears to have uncovered a whole new lust for life.
Last time we encountered Dylan on record, on 1997’s sometimes astounding Time Out Of Mind, we found him teetering on the brink, staring into the abyss, stretched on his grave and, on at least five songs, making great art out of life and death itself. If, as he has said himself, the darkest hour comes right before the dawn – on Blood On The Tracks’ ‘Meet Me In the Morning’, whose slide guitar blues which would fit neatly into this new collection – then Love And Theft can be seen as the fruits of the exorcism. Sure, there are still a few hellhounds on his trail – he’s alive, isn’t he? – but with a lot of his demons confronted and faced down, this is the most playful, loose-limbed and downright rockin’ he has been in years. Or, at least, most of the time. And we’ll get to those notable exceptions later.
The prevailing mood, if not always the style, will come as no surprise to those who saw Dylan tearing up Nowlan Park. Augmented by the wonderful keyboard work of Augie Meyers, this is the same band that, for quite some time, has been keeping the Never Ending show on the road and, in the process, inspiring some of Dylan’s most memorable live work since the heyday of The Band. For Love And Theft, they’ve effortlessly transferred that spirit into the studio; variously, this sounds like it could have been cut in a club, a jukejoint, a lounge, on the back porch or even, yes, in the basement.
The people, places and things that fill the music’s landscape, whether invoked in name or in spirit, are the stuff of familiar, age-old Amercana, only some of it weird. Here in no particular order of merit be: bootleggers, gamblers, Big Joe Turner, rolling rivers, whispering pines, Clarksdale, hard-hearted women, broken-down men, Elmore James, Aunt Sally, floods, mules, preacher men and, of course, the devil.
But in this already teeming world who else but Dylan could find space for Charles Darwin, Othello, Desdemona, Tweedle Dum, Tweedle Dee and all? And who else but Dylan could take the most common raw material and, through his songwriting and performance alchemy – in particular, his still vivid ability to startle with an unexpected rhyme or to animate the obvious with some fantastic vocal shape – transform it into 21st century music as fresh and relevant and timeless as this often is.
For the most part, Love and Theft is made up of two distinct musical strands, blues-based floor-shakers and romantic, ragtimey ballads. In the great scheme of things – or, more pertinently, in Dylan’s own great sheme of things – the latter may be of no enduring consequence but they’re done with such sincerity, affection and good humour that they’re impossible to dislike. Bob Dylan as your granny’s favourite moon-in-June crooner? You heard it first on sugar-coated tunes like ‘Bye And Bye’, ‘Moonlight’, ‘Floater’ and ‘Po’ Boy’ (the latter managing to smuggle Shakespeare into Tin Pan Alley and also featuring two of the corniest gags you’ll find outside of a Hal Roach gig). Throughout, he battles with his own cracked voice and mosty wins, but then Dylan’s singing was never about such trifles as range or purity of tone; phrasing, enunciation and emphasis were always so much more important than hitting, let alone holding, the right note.
On the twelve bar side of things, the full-tilt ‘Tweedle Dum And Tweedle Day’ sets out the music’s stall with even Tennessee Williams getting out on the floor to shake a leg. ‘Summer Days’ is pure rockabilly romp, crazy Bob and his rhythm rockers laying down a hip-shaking groove, ‘Honest With Me’ is a trip out on Highway ‘01 and ‘Cry A While’, all switch-blade tempo changes and fightin’ talk, has Dylan boasting, Muddy-style, “I feel like a fightin’ rooster”. Best of a fine bunch is ‘Lonesome Day Blues’, a great, hulking Chicago beast of a thing, that sounds like it mashed down half the southside to get to your front door. All that’s missing here is James Cotton as, conspicuously, is Dylan’s harmonica throughout the whole album.
All of which leaves the three songs which seem to me to be Love And Theft’s most persuasive candidates for inclusion in the Dylan Hall Of Fame. ‘Mississippi’ is indefinably gorgeous, a deceptively simple, deeply affecting song of love, loss and resignation, which once more highlights the writer’s winning way with melody and his uniqueness with rhyme: “My clothes are wet, tight on my skin/but not as tight as the corner I painted myself in”. ‘High Water’(for Charley Patton) comes straight from the mountain stream, an Appalachian mystery dance to remind you that it isn’t just Deliverance which can make the banjo sound ominous. Classic Dylanism, delivered in inimitable style: “They got Charles Darwin trapped out on there on Highway 5/Judge says to the High Sheriff, I want him dead or alive/Either one I don’t care”.
Finally, there’s the album’s haunting closer ‘Sugar Baby’. Funereal paced, this one hums where much of the album rattles, its sparse three-dimensional soundscape placing Augey Meyers’ accordion at a distance and the guitar in your ear, with Dylan’s voice more naked and exposed than on any other track. Here he might pilfer the blues (“There ain’t no limit to the trouble women can bring”) and Irish folk (“Love is pleasing, love is teasing”) but, more than anything, this is his own ‘Idiot Wind’ revisited, lacking that song’s epic poetry perhaps but with the bitterness still corrosive after all these years. It’s a stunning finale.
The Texas songwriter Guy Clark once wrote a song about “stuff that works, stuff that holds up, the kinda stuff you don’t hang on the wall”. Bob Dylan has painted more than his fare share of masterprieces; I don’t believe Love & Theft is another one but it does add a couple of great songs to the canon, and for its sheer exuberance, good humour and companionability, may yet come to be among the mostly fonded regarded of all his albums.
In short, this is the stuff that works.