Dylan brings new life to old style on latest album, Love and Theft

“Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone for ever. All walks of life: George Best, for example, had it and lost it, or David Bowie, or Lou Reed or Charlie Nicholas, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley,” explained Sick Boy in the movie Trainspotting. Replied Renton, “Right. So we all get old and then we can’t hack it any more. Is that it?” Even if this pearl of wisdom comes from the mouths of two Scottish junkies, it is a compelling, if depressing argument.

Take Bob Dylan. In the past 40-odd years, Dylan has been many things: folk prophet, angry young man, born-again Christian, born-again Jew and the grand old man of rock’n roll (Mr. Dylan recently celebrated his 60th birthday). But long after he is gone, he will be remembered and revered for what he did when he was in his 20s.

Albums like Blonde on Blonde and Bringing It All Back Home contain some of the most incredible music the world has ever heard, yet it’s a curse Dylan has failed to shake off. With the exception of 1974’s Blood on the Tracks and the occasional great song (“Man In Me,” “Hurricane,” “Not Dark Yet”), Dylan’s post-1960’s output has been inconsistent and mediocre compared to his early work.

So it was with some trepidation that I sat down to review the new Bob Dylan album, Love and Theft, which came out last Tuesday. To make matters worse, Rolling Stone magazine gave the album five stars. Five. If God Himself descended from the heavens and recorded an LP, Rolling Stone would only give it three and a half stars. Now, I worship Dylan, but Rolling Stone’s lip service made me wary. The situation was ripe for a letdown.

But the album is good. Oh, is it good. I mean really, awfully, excruciatingly good. Bob has made a living out of surprising his fans and critics, but I don’t think anyone thought that at age 60 he could pull an album like this out of his hat. “At one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone for ever.” Dear friends, Bobby Dylan has conquered his past and defied time. Love and Theft is the best and most thoughtful album that I have heard in a long time.

Dylan took the title for his album from Eric Lott’s 1993 book Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, a scholarly study of blackface entertainment at the turn of the 20th century. Lott argues that the minstrels’ appropriation of black dialect and black culture is an example of the dual motives of love and theft. Love, because the white working class harbored a secret envy and “sympathetic identification” with blacks, and theft, because of their racist beliefs and desire to ridicule their black brethren.

At first, it seems odd that Dylan would name his album after a scholarly work, after distancing his music from academia for so many years (he now claims at press conferences to be “just a song-and-dance man”), but the theme of love and theft really is all over the album. The songs borrow very heavily from pre-WWII African-American music like jazz and blues, and Dylan sees the borrowing as both thievery and as a tribute to the music he loves. But the album captures the raw emotion of jazz and blues so well that the theft is warranted.

He has worked with these musical idioms before, but never as successfully as on Love and Theft. The songs just cook. Bob’s back-up musicians on the album comprise the finest, most skilled group he’s had since his glory days with The Band. Guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell in particular make the music come alive, which is no small feat when you’re playing music that was popular 50 or 60 years ago. The smooth boogie of album opener “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum” and the jagged blues number “Cry Awhile,” groove in a way Bob’s music never has.

And his dirty croak of a voice, which hurt his past few albums, actually works to great effect throughout Love and Theft. Aside from steel guitar flourishes on “Moonlight” and the occasional organ or banjo, Dylan and his band stick to the guitar-bass-drums formula, but the energy with which they attack the songs keeps the album from becoming monotonous.

Without a doubt the strongest batch of songs he’s written in some time, Love and Theft sees Bob Dylan moving in new directions both musically and lyrically. Songs like “Floater” and “Bye and Bye” are more harmonically adventurous than his usual work and have great melodies to boot. And the lyrics are just stunning. As he was on his last album, 1997’s Time Out of Mind, Dylan is concerned with his own mortality (“The future for me is just a thing of the past”) and what he sees as the ugly state of society at large (“Some people they ain’t human / they ain’t got no heart or soul”).

But where Time Out of Mind was occasionally repetitive and always depressing, Love and Theft finds Dylan struggling with these themes and coming to terms with them. I wouldn’t venture so far as to call the album optimistic, proven by lines like “Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick / Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick” from the beautiful album-closer “Sugar Baby.” But there is hope in Bob’s stories of lost love, as well as the occasional joke. Time Out of Mind had absolutely no sense of humor, so it’s refreshing to hear Dylan crack a joke like “Called room service / Said send up a room” or “I sat on my watch / So I’d be on time” in the middle of a song.

Love and Theft also sees Bob examining lost loves, yet simultaneously reaching out for new ones. “Mississippi” – perhaps the best song on the album – features some of Dylan’s most incisive writing about love and relationships. In short, it is astounding that a 60-year old man could write and record a collection of songs with this much life. But, as a younger Bob wrote way back in the day, “I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”

I know it has nothing to do with the album, but the tragedy of Sept. 11 and its aftermath has given us more sorrow and grief than any other event of recent history. It has affected me and everyone I know very deeply. Bob Dylan recorded the album before any of this happened, but Love and Theft’s ruminations on loss and recovery are that much stronger in the wake of that awful event. That album is the only thing that’s made me feel better so far. After what happened, rock albums lose their significance, and writing about rock albums even more so, but just take a look at these verses from “Mississippi”:

Every step of the way, we walk the line/Your days are numbered, so are mine/Time is piling up, we struggle and we stray/We’re all boxed in, nowhere to escape

Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast/I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past/But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free/I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me.