Bob Dylan’s 31st studio album was released to lofty expectations on September 11, 2001. Listeners who managed to snag a copy on that fateful day were greeted, just two songs in, with an image of dreadful portent. “Sky full of fire / pain pouring down,” croaked the man once dubbed the voice of a generation, courting speculation that his prophetic office might now extend to awful foresight into this new, evil day. But if “Love and Theft” tells us anything, it’s that truly there is nothing new under the sun: the album looks back to the byways and backroads of an American landscape that had all but vanished, if it ever even existed in the first place, drawing on an endlessly complicated web of myths, parables, and jokes to reveal just how little progress has changed the human condition. It’s an album full of gnarled, old-time vernaculars that feel startlingly current: an album where Charley Patton and Charles Darwin converge on old Civil War towns, where bullies are addressed with shopworn Groucho Marx routines, where “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” may be old Depression-era swindlers but could just as easily be Bush and Gore. Critic Greil Marcus once used the term “invisible republic” to describe the realer-than-real shadow-country mapped out in Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Harry Smith’s Anthology, but the term could just as easily apply to “Love and Theft” and its deep, allusive chronicles.
Self-produced under Dylan’s Jack Frost alias — an arrangement he’s maintained with every subsequent album — “Love and Theft” followed Time Out of Mind, his rapturously-received “comeback” album, by four years. Time Out of Mind remains alluring in its holy-moment mystique (thanks to producer Daniel Lanois), and almost all of its songs count as major additions to the Dylan catalog. Still, it’s “Love and Theft” that feels like the true comeback, bristling with energy and humor where its predecessor was notably desolate and subdued. Dylan leads his regular band through a series of songs that proudly mix and intermingle American folk tropes, deftly avoiding Boomer-friendly “blues rock” clichés in favor of weirder, less fashionable pre-war idioms: raucous swing numbers and grinding blues share space with sighing torch songs and vaudevillian soft-shoe. Guitarist Charlie Sexton injects ragged energy into the upbeat numbers, but it’s mostly Dylan who makes these timeless pieces feel alive and unpredictable. Contemporary reporting indicated that he was furiously dashing out lyrics while his band warmed up in the next room over, and “Love & Theft” does indeed feel like a firehose of pure inspiration: there are tall tales, knock-knock jokes, puns, and withering put-downs, adding up to the highest laugh density of any Dylan record. And you can hear in his voice just how much fun he’s having: the ragged croak he introduced on Time Out of Mind is put to perfect use here, with Dylan snarling and swaggering through the viscous “Lonesome Day Blues,” deadpanning his Depression-era comedy routine on “Po’ Boy,” and adopting a grizzled but romantic croon on “Moonlight.” You’d have to go back at least as far as The Basement Tapes to hear him sound so present, so invested; frankly, to hear him sound so much like he gives a shit.
It’s an album that stands tall in Dylan’s catalog, even as it summarizes so many of the crossed paths that came before it: The oral storytelling traditions enshrined in The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the careening garage-rock energy of Blonde on Blonde, and yes, the raucous myth-making of The Basement Tapes. You can hear a little bit of Dylan’s Saved-era Pentecostal fervor in the closing “Sugar Baby,” a withering pack-your-bags ultimatum complete with a reference to Judgment Day and a call to repentance. The entire album plays like a photo-negative of Highway 61 Revisited, which hotwired old blues forms with cryptic, modernistic lyrics; here, it’s as if Dylan is set on showing us that the old folk vernaculars were plenty strange and plenty contemporary even before he laced them with amphetamines and refracted them through Ezra Pound. Perhaps the most underlooked reference point is John Wesley Harding, another set of hardscrabble tales that alternate between being deeply suggestive and somewhat inscrutable; “Love and Theft” could be its matching bookend. As for the albums that followed, most of them have stood in the shadow of “Love and Theft”’s American roots alchemy, but none have felt as punchy, as funny, or as fresh. (Modern Times seems to map out the exact halfway point between “Love and Theft”’s barrelling energy and Time Out of Mind’s pensive hush.)
It’s easy to trace a faint misanthropy through these songs, or at least a dim view of our species’ capacity for forward momentum and growth. “High Water,” a jaded reckoning with ecological, social, and/or financial collapse, shrugs at the notion of Darwinian evolution and lands on this inspiring line: “As great as you are, man, you’ll never be greater than yourself.” Dylan’s characters can spit invective when it’s called for: “He not a gentleman at all, he’s rotten to the core, he’s a coward and he steals,” says one narrator, a fairly comprehensive dressing-down of his ex-lover’s new man. But some of them are capable of introspection; the narrator in “Mississippi” knows he’s overstayed his welcome, and there’s real compassion for the hangdog cuckold who narrates “Po’ Boy.” Elsewhere, politicians are dismissed with dad jokes (they wear jogging shoes, you see, because they’re “running for office, got no time to lose”), and, as is customary in the blues tradition, women are generally a source of trouble (“why don’t you break my heart one more time just for good luck?”). But try telling that to the smooth-talker who narrates “Moonlight,” a genuinely affecting and endearingly chaste love song; or to Juliet, who appears in “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” to tell Romeo he can “shove off” any time he likes. There are reckonings with mortality that feel much more matter-of-fact and accepting than the ones that came after it, or for that matter the ones that came before: “Leaves are rustling in the woods, things are falling off of the shelves,” he mutters in “Lonesome Day Blues,” a reminder that things fall apart, same now as ever. But there is hopefulness, too, not just the romantic kind, but a real eschatological vision; “summer days and summer nights are gone, / but I know a place where there’s still something going on,” he sings conspiratorially in the rollicking “Summer Days.” Of course, he’s told all of this before, and he wasn’t the first to do so; “Love & Theft” asserts Dylan’s humble station in a long line of prophetic witnesses, testifying to all that is beautiful and broken about our shared humanity. Early in the album, a woman warns him that he can’t repeat the past, but naturally, Dylan knows better: “What do you mean you can’t?” he chuckles. “Of course you can.”
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.