Dylan's labor of 'Love'
September 10, 2001
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
"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
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
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
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
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,
'Love and Theft'