Dylan's labor of 'Love'


September 10, 2001



"Old, young--age don't carry weight/It doesn't matter in the end," Bob Dylan croons on "Floater (Too Much to Ask)," a track that's carefully placed smack in the middle of "Love and Theft," the eagerly anticipated album arriving in stores today.

Sho' nuff, Uncle Bob: The only thing that matters in rock 'n' roll is whether you deliver the goods. And your 43rd album does--brilliantly at times, effortlessly throughout, and with that famous biting wit sneering at idolizers and detractors alike.

Virtually alone among the baby boom icons of the '60s, most of whom stopped trying artistically and started resting on their laurels during the '70s, the venerated Dylan remains a tireless and consistently vibrant rocker. At age 60, he virtually lives on the road in the midst of a never-ending tour, and for the last decade, he has been in prime creative form, mining his vast catalog and reinventing his songs nightly with a band that ranks among his very best.

The albums haven't been bad, either: Dark and enigmatic, the Daniel Lanois-produced "Time Out of Mind" (1997) claimed an armful of Grammys and an Oscar. But it was overrated by those critics who called it a "Blood on the Tracks" for the '90s, and it disappointed fans by failing to showcase the loose and fiery interplay that has marked his recent live shows. (For the most part, his touring band didn't perform on the disc.)

This time, Dylan produces himself and works with the group he's been honing onstage--guitarist Charlie Sexton, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper--as well as veteran Texas keyboardist Augie Meyers. In the studio, Dylan cuts loose, having good ol' fashioned fun while paying homage to the rockabilly and country-blues that first fired his imagination and his hormones half a century ago, when he was a ducktail-sportin' punk growing up in northern Minnesota.

Paul McCartney attempted something similar with a later chunk of the '50s circa the good-time toss-off of "Run Devil Run" (1999). But that was a rock 'n' roll covers disc, while Dylan penned most of these 12 songs anew during a two-week period in New York last spring. ("Mississippi" appeared in radically different form in 1998 on Sheryl Crow's "The Globe Sessions.") Is Dylan attempting to "say something" about life in these fractured times by commenting on the past? Or was he just amusing himself? Could it be both--or neither?

"All the songs are variations on the 12-bar theme and blues-based melodies," he told USA Today in a devilishly clever quote. "The music is an electronic grid, the lyrics being the substructure that holds it all together. The songs themselves don't have any genetic history. Is it like 'Time Out of Mind,' or 'Oh Mercy,' or 'Blood on the Tracks,' or whatever? Probably not. I think of it more as a greatest hits album, volume 1 or volume 2. Without the hits--not yet, anyway."

Dylan's longtime label, Columbia Records, does believe it has some hits here, and it's taken the unusual move of filming a TV commercial to hype the disc. The clip (which began airing Sept. 3 and can be viewed online at www.bobdylan.com ) is ingenious for the way that it's never clear what it's selling, beyond a certain "Dylanesque" attitude. Set to the joyfully twisting opener, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," it finds Dylan, the ultimate poker face, gambling with a bunch of card sharks as several sultry ladies become entangled in a cat fight.

What are we to make of this clip, of Dylan's typically inscrutable utterance to the press and of the lyrics of "Love and Theft"? I'll leave the parsing of the meaning in all of this to the English majors turned Dylanologists, who are sure to produce their inevitable theses online. I've always preferred the Kerouac/Beats-inspired Dylan to the "meaningful" Woody Guthrie Dylan, and it's the former that's in evidence here, indulging himself by unleashing gleeful torrents of words, cracking wise with in-jokes upon in-jokes, and throwing out nuggets of superbly offhanded poetry.

Take this from the disc-closing "Sugar Baby": "There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women bring/Love is pleasing, love is teasing, love--not an evil thing." Or this from the surreal "Po' Boy": "I say how much you want for that, I go into the store/ Man says, 'Three dollars'/I say, 'Will you take four'?"

And then there are the words about aging quoted earlier. You get the sense throughout of Dylan toying with his listeners, mixing the profound and the inane in equal measure because, well, life does the same thing. This has been his modus operandi throughout his career, though many have missed the sly humor. This time, he has the added ammunition of playing on the "momentous" event of his own 60th birthday, the attendant canonization (remember Dylan glad-handing President Clinton and grinning with the pope?), and Columbia's efforts to profit from it all.

In any event, rock 'n' rollers--as opposed to folkies and English majors--know that you can't and shouldn't separate the words from the way they're sung and the music they're paired with. And regardless of what some might say, Dylan ain't no folkie.

The best moments on "Love and Theft" are about the subtle but wonderful interplay between that gorgeously homely voice, Sexton, Campbell and Dylan's own snaking, intertwining guitar riffs, and rootsy, rolling rhythms that alternately evoke the great rockabilly records from Sun Studios and the pre-war country of artists such as the down-home Carter Family, the tortured Hank Williams and the swinging Bob Wills (think "Nashville Skyline" revisited).

Listen to how Dylan's superb singing flirts with the guitar lines in the goofy story-song "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum"; how his voice rides the mandolin on "Mississippi" and the dobro on "High-Water" (which is dedicated to Charley Patton), and how he rocks like the bastard son of Gene Vincent on "Summer Days," "Lonesome Days Blues," "Cry Awhile" and "Honest With Me." These are perfect pairings of a great band, an inimitable instrument and truly memorable material.

What keeps "Love and Theft" from being an unqualified masterpiece is a handful of tracks that find Dylan wallowing in uncharacteristic sentimentality. The smarmy '40s balladry of "Moonlight" and "Bye and Bye" are so abysmally awful that they could well be parodies or evidence of the singer's perverse humor--music like this being the sort of stuff that Sun Records rose up to stomp out. Whatever the intent, these tracks aren't easy to listen to, and they detract from what is otherwise a rollicking good time from an artist who, to quote from "Floater" again, "has got more lives than a cat." Missteps aside, for that we are grateful, indeed.



'Love and Theft'