IN A 40-year career as a recording artist, Bob Dylan changed contemporary music forever. His landmark works of the 1960s alone make him a legend. Since that time, though, he has been prolific. Some of those albums have been true gems, but even his most ardent fans have come to lament a trend of the past three decades. He has not followed one masterpiece with another.
[pullquote] Love And Theft, Dylan’s 43rd album, follows his 1997 Grammy-winning tour de force Time Out Of Mind. It is, however, very different from that series of ruminations on mortality and the reality of evil. In fact, the new album’s loose, live feel will come as a jolt to listeners who associate him today with that Daniel Lanois-produced comeback CD.
Love And Theft will be no surprise to those who have seen Dylan’s creative rebirth with an ace touring band in recent years. That band – guitarist Charlie Sexton, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier, and drummer David Kemper, augmented by Sir Douglas Quintet alum Augie Meyers on vox organ, Hammond B3, and accordion – is having a great time on this 12-song set, and nobody is rocking any more than 60-year old Bob himself.
Indeed, this is the first Dylan album in 30 years whose melodies, genres, and grooves grab the listener before the lyrics. When things begin with the loose-limbed rickety rocker Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, one cannot help but groove and grin. For all of the great things that one could say about Time Out Of Mind, that would not be one of them. There are just as many foot taps ahead on pieces like the 12-bar Lonesome Day Blues and the triumphant Honest With Me, the latter of which might best be described as the grandson of Tombstone Blues or other mid-60s classics.
The groove, though, is a nod by Dylan to the roots of his craft and the whole rock genre. He moves effortlessly from rockabilly to swing and from bluegrass to Chicago blues, with little bits of Tin Pan Alley thrown in for good measure. On the one hand, there is the jump blues of Summer Days, the standard blues progression with little twists of pace Cry A While, and the 12-bar blues of Lonesome Day Blues. On the other hand, there is the lighthearted ragtime of the vintage country Floater (Too Much To Ask) and the country blues of High Water (For Charley Patton). If that were not enough, Bob does the lounge lizard in Moonlight, and is timelessly jazzy in the shuffle Bye And Bye and the ballad Po’ Boy.
Lyrically, it is easy to grab the one-liners and puns of the lyrics, even including a knock-knock joke, and say that this album is the good-natured flip side of Dylan’s coin. That is, however, both superficial and inaccurate. While Time Out Of Mind is clear in its message, Love And Theft is no day off. In most cases, the characters of the songs struggle with age, morality, treachery, and mortality. To wit, the Dylanesque surrealism of Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum starts off with two good-timing companions, but Dum quickly turns on Dee. Similarly, High Water is a chilling tale of ruin, and the one-liners and childish puns of Po’ Boy are veneer for the vicious edge of the lyrics. As for the album-closing epic Sugar Baby, every tender moment of recollection has a razor-sharp underbelly.
As for the spiritual statements, most are implied. “Sky full of fire, rain pouring down” is the album’s apocalyptic reference, and his indictment of humankind this time around is “Some people ain’t human; they ain’t got no heart or soul.” As for his own walk, he sings, “I’m a cryin’ to the Lord to be meek and mild.” Bye And Bye does include the declaration “I’m going to baptise you in fire so you can sin no more / I want to establish my rule through civil war.”
The broader theological statement of Dylan at 60, though, would seem to be in the album’s closing statement Sugar Baby. “Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick,” he laments. Where there is love, there is theft. However, one can either throw in the towel or roll with the punches in this fallen creation and come back swinging and grinning. Bob Dylan seems to have chosen the latter approach. Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.