Love and Theft
Bob Dylan
Columbia, 2001

"Some day everything’s gonna be different
When I paint my masterpiece"
––Bob Dylan, 1971

Last May, when it seemed like every newspaper and magazine in the world was remarking on how the rebel rock poet of the ’60s had turned 60, Bob Dylan was in a recording studio in New York City with his road band, creating his most musically realized album. A pioneer and someone who prefers spontaneity and inspiration to perfection, Dylan albums—always recorded quickly—are for the most part rough and raw. If the feel is right, he’ll leave in a mistake in the lyrics—a slurred line or even an out-of-tune guitar. Not this time. On Love And Theft, there is not one misplaced note, not one sloppy arrangement.

Much of the credit has to go to Dylan’s excellent band: bassist Tony Garnier (who has worked with Dylan longer than any musician), drummer David Kemper, guitarist Charlie Sexton and multi-instrumentalist (various guitars, violin, banjo) Larry Campbell. For most of Dylan’s career, the common perception has been, with good reason, that the greatest band that worked with Dylan was The Band. This album proves that—great as they were—the shadow of The Band is no longer there. This band, with the addition of Augie Meyers on organ, moves through every genre—whether straight-ahead rock and roll, blues, jump, swing or bluegrass—with ease. It’s a magnificent achievement! The vision is clearly Dylan’s, but the band more than puts it across. Perhaps more than any previous Dylan album, Love And Theft is as much about the music—and the sound and style of the music—as it is about the lyrics and the message.

At the same time, it is lyrically dense and loaded with references. It’s been a very long time since the words have come pouring out of Dylan in such a torrent. In fact, as musical as this album is, there are few solos and, unlike his concerts, no instrumental jams. It’s almost as if he wanted to make sure everything he wanted to say got in.

On the printed page, the lyrics can be deceptive—you have to hear them sung. And again, it is a new style of writing for Dylan. Some of the songs at first seem like jokes, but then he hits you with a line that sizzles like a wire on fire. You suddenly realize things are much darker and deeper than they seem, and you never know when that sizzling line is going to appear. There are more quotable lines on this album than any Dylan album in decades.

This is a distinctly American album, and it brings to mind such past work as The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding. Yet, there is a host of characters to rival Highway 61 Revisited. In contrast to the walking of Time Out Of Mind, on this album Dylan is constantly driving. Car references abound. And despite the limitations of his vocal range, Dylan sings with more intensity, emotion, heart and humor than he has on any album in a quarter of a century. It’s as much in his phrasing and how he sings something as it is in what he’s saying.

The album fades in on a rocker, "Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum," that is reminiscent of two songs from 1965/’66—"I Wanna Be Your Lover" and "Tell Me Mama." There are references in the song from the obvious "Alice In Wonderland" to the Bible and Robert Johnson, to name a few, and certain lines suspiciously recall the last presidential election.

"Mississippi" is a standout on an album of standouts. This is a new version of a song recorded for Time Out Of Mind and is one of the most beautiful and perfect arrangements of any Dylan song on any album. If there is any song on this album that sounds like a classic Bob Dylan song, this is it. From there, the album moves into the jump blues/swing of "Summer Days." One doesn’t usually think of Bob Dylan as swinging, but this song swings like mad and is quite possibly the fastest song he’s ever done. On the surface, it seems like a party song. But the lyrics slyly go deeper and sometimes comically, as in this line: "She says, ‘You can’t repeat the past,’ I say ‘You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course, you can.’" And again, the last election is quite possibly referenced with this verse where the last line brings to mind the second debate:

Politician’s got on his joggin’ shoes,
He must be runnin’ for office, got no time to lose,
Suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity.
You been a-rollin’ your eyes, you been teasin’ me.

Dylan downshifts into a more mellow kind of swing on "Bye and Bye," which one can almost imagine Sinatra or perhaps Tony Bennett singing. Dylan slips in such lines as, "I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time" and "The future for me is already a thing of the past"—with an apparent straight face—and then turns around and quotes William Blake. By the time he gets to the last verse, which includes the line "I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war," you’re not so sure either of the above singers would have done it.

From there, Dylan goes into one of the heaviest and nastiest blues he’s ever done, "Sad and Lonesome Day," with a wicked guitar riff punctuating each line. His vocal gets meaner and more ferocious with each verse building up to:

I'm going to spare the defeated, 'cause I'm going to speak to the crowd,
I'm going to teach peace to the conquered, I'm going to tame the proud.

Then suddenly, it’s way back in time for one of the weirdest songs Dylan’s ever done—"Floater (Too Much To Ask)"—that borrows a riff from a ’30s jazz tune, "Snuggled On Your Shoulder," sung by Bing Crosby, among others. The setting appears to be somewhere in the South, with a lazy swinging feel, but all kinds of surprises lay in store from a sudden appearance of Romeo and Juliet to lines such as: "If you ever try to interfere with me/Or cross my path again, You do so at the peril of your own life."

From there, the sound suddenly shifts to bluegrass for "Highwater (For Charlie Patton)," another standout. Dylan’s singing here is beyond incredible, and the lyrics again refer to other songs from Patton’s "Shake It And Break It," "Kansas City," Robert Johnson’s "Dust My Broom" and the ancient ballad "The Cuckoo." The song initially appears to be about a flood, but Dylan again jumps all over the map. When it gets to this verse, things change entirely:

Well, George Lewes told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew,
"You can't open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view,
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5"
Judge says to the High Sheriff, "I want them dead or alive,
Either one, I don't care"
High water everywhere

Then Dylan pulls an astounding change of pace into a jazz-flavored "Moonlight" with the kind of sweet vocal one wouldn’t necessarily expect. The melody is unlike anything he’s ever written, and the sly humor once more appears, especially the way he sings this verse:

The clouds are turning crimson,
The leaves fall from the limbs and
The branches cast their shadows over stone;
Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone?

Perhaps the lightest track on the album, there’s an undercurrent in both his voice and the music that suggests something darker.

Just when you think Dylan’s become a pop crooner, he slams into the album’s hardest rocker, "Honest With Me." The song has a positively evil slide guitar and a vocal that grows meaner with each line. Comic lines are interspersed with lines that slay you, and the song is loaded with bizarre images where you least expect them.

Mississippi John Hurt meets Fats Waller on the next song, a country blues mixed with Dixieland that one could imagine Louis Armstrong singing. Dylan’s vocal is incredibly impassioned and funny at the same time, and jokes are alternated with other lines such as "The Game is the same, it’s just up on another level." And when Othello and Desdemona suddenly appear, it’s not all that surprising, nor is the knock-knock joke that ends it.

"Cry Awhile" slides back into the Delta with a kind of crazy Howlin’ Wolf time shift. Again the intensity in Dylan’s voice, complimented by the perfect guitar work of Campbell and Sexton, make this one of the funkiest tracks he’s ever done, highlighted by lines like, "Some people they ain't human, they ain't got no heart or soul."

Saving the best for last, Dylan shifts back into modern times (sort of) with "Sugar Baby," another song that’s different than anything he’s done. Opening with Garnier’s bowed bass against a single organ chord, this is the album’s saddest and most moving song. His voice is spooky, recalling the best songs of The Basement Tapes such as "Tears of Rage" and (the unreleased) "I’m Not There (1956)." Lines like "Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick" contrast against the jokey lines, such as "I’m living with Aunt Sally, but you know she’s not really my aunt."

The beginning of the second verse, "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff," has already caused some eyes to open wide on the Internet news group, Is he talking about bootleggers or bootleggers?

Love And Theft crosses more emotional and musical territory than any album in recent memory by Dylan—or anyone else. As on his best work of the past, you’re never really sure whether it’s him or a character talking. For years, Dylan has been quite conscious of time and space in his songs. Here he crosses time and subject matter with blinding speed, sometimes in a single verse or line. Virtually every topic Dylan’s sung about is in this album in one way or another, from love or lost love to America to God, redemption, the terrible sadness of life and the state of the world. At times, he is at his most personally revealing, and there are several references to his parents (though, of course, sometimes it could be a character in a song). When he sings "Some of these memories you learn to live with, some of them you can’t," there is no doubt that it’s coming from some place deep inside.

That Bob Dylan could pull this album out of his bag of tricks at this time is no small achievement. Yes, the Bob Dylan of another time and place could not possibly have made this album. He had to get to where he is now to do it. As a good friend of mine said after hearing it, "It’s like he woke up and remembered who he is."—Peter Stone Brown