BOB DYLAN: LOVE AND THEFT (2001)
1) Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum; 2) Mississippi; 3) Summer Days; 4) Bye & Bye; 5) Lonesome Day Blues; 6) Floater; 7) High Water; 8) Moonlight; 9) Honest With Me; 10) Po' Boy; 11) Cry A While; 12) Sugar Baby.
He survived into the 21st century after all, but when you compare Love And Theft with Time Out Of Mind, it still feels as if he died, lingered out there for seven days and seven nights, and then came back as a different person. In all honesty, trying to repeat Time Out Of Mind would be like trying to rewrite one's own testament — not an auspicious thing to do. So what do you do if you have your testament laid out in perfect form, and somehow you're still not dead yet? You just take on a different personality, and pretend it's a separate kind of you.
It is a little humorous that, although the levels of critical praise for Love And Theft matched, or even exceeded, the praise for its predecessor, if you rewind the tape a little, the nearest closest album in spirit would probably be Under The Red Sky — the one that got the critics all riled up and declaring that the man was gone for good. But honestly, play them back to back and the basic concept is the same: get yourself a rootsy backing band, let it all hang out a bit, relax and have some old-fashioned fun with archaic musical structures. The one glaring difference is the lyrics, which were clearly downplayed and almost intentionally simplified on Red Sky, but are fully back to Dylan's highest standards of sophistication here — which, once again, only goes to show that for most critics, Dylan's art is only as good as Dylan's words are. To tell you the truth, though, I like Love And Theft just fine, yet I could not bring myself to pay deep attention to any of the lyrics. As I browse through the sheet, it is evident that the man is really trying — many of the phrasings and unpredictable twists hearken back to 1965-66 — but, honestly, by 2001 most of us must have hit that oversaturation point where even the most brilliant new Dylan lyrics are already perceived as... well, it's good to know his brain is still locating new combinations of metaphors and conundrums at top speed, but it's not as if it were still capable of surprising us.
Anyway, the big deal is that, where Time Out Of Mind, with its ghostly-swampy Lanois palette, was dark, unsettling, and psychologically uncomfortable, Love And Theft is light, playful, and almost completely given over to pre-rock'n'roll stylistics. The Bob Dylan band is having itself a «woodchopper's ball», to which we are all cordially invited — overseen and produced by none other than Jack Frost, giving you a sharp stare from the album cover and looking quite a bit frosty indeed (the album does really go along quite fine with a thin streak of fresh snow falling outside the window, particularly the romantic jazzy bits like ʽFloaterʼ and ʽMoonlightʼ), although, when the time comes, he can shake off all that ice with a tight, fast beat in an instant.
It is interesting that Bob chose not to retreat once more into the world of dark acoustic folk songs, but instead settled somewhere else — emerging as a retro popular entertainer, stuck somewhere in between Louis Jordan, Lonnie Johnson, Hoagy Carmichael, and Hank Williams. But then, when you start thinking about it, that was a kind of image he hadn't really tried on yet (although he did get somewhat close with the Traveling Wilburys and Red Sky stuff), and he obviously was not going to get any more pigeonholed in the 21st century than he was in the 20th. So here you go — some good old-fashioned jump blues, some Django Reinhardt-ish jazz balladry, a bit of swing, a touch of the electric 12-bar Chicago stuff, and one for the road: ʽMississippiʼ is the most «proverbially Dylan» song on here, but it was originally recorded during the Time sessions, later donated to Sheryl Crow, and finally reappropriated for Love And Theft — where it occupies the position of track no. 2, luring the listener into thinking there will be more songs like that on the album. But there won't.
So, how successful is the experiment? I'd say it works all right, but probably does not deserve the grand acclaim it got — to a large extent, from people who had simply forgotten about how good «rootsy» music can sound when one actually gives a damn. Funny as it seems, Bob's backing band here sounds tougher, tighter, more involving and more involved than gazillions of other bands from 2001, young and old — and yet they are only the backing band: never once is any of the players properly allowed to leave the shadows and outshine the frontman. Everything is kept down to the bare, well-familiar necessities: clock in, set the groove, kick in the groove, repeat at top energy level until the leader runs out of lyrics. The only question is, how much of your time are you, the listener, willing to give to these guys.
And Bob plays a mean game with you here, pushing his band into delivering one cheap, simple, healthy trill after another. ʽTweedle Dee & Tweedle Dumʼ, opening the album, is not really that more sophisticated than, say, ʽWiggle Wiggleʼ, but the guitar parts, screwed together from a few jazz, blues, and rockabilly chords, are much more fun and far better capable of winding up the spirit. Likewise, the song title also hints at the same level of childishness as ʽWiggle Wiggleʼ, but the words, this time, are fired from Bob's machine gun of surrealism and sarcasm, and in the end, «Tweedle Dee» and «Tweedle Dum», as abstract characters, will tend to look more like Frankie Lee and Judas Priest than their John Byrom, Lewis Carroll, or LaVern Baker predecessors. Yes, the song goes on for nearly five minutes. No, you are not getting anything in its last four minutes that you have not already gotten in the first. Yes, it's not as if this never happened before with Bob Dylan. No, you are not allowed to suggest any changes or throw in constructive criticism, because he is Bob Dylan and you are...?
There may be yet another reason why Love And Theft is so far removed from Time Out Of Mind. Over those four years, Dylan's voice has undergone yet another shift — now the croaking, gurgling, and wobbling in his throat can no longer be tamed, subdued, or mixed out, and this is really not the kind of voice that could inspire its owner for another round of ʽIdiot Windʼ. Even ʽLove Sickʼ, when sang with the Love And Theft voice, would have lost a large part of its mystery. So the best bet, indeed, would be to match the «decrepit» vocal strings to certain «decrepit» musical genres, in order to prove that they are not «decrepit» at all — check ʽHigh Waterʼ, subtitled ʽFor Charley Pattonʼ, on which Bob certainly does not sound much like the real Charley Patton, but does sound like a desperate-desolate old hobo, lamenting the end of the world as we know it ("high water everywhere!"), much like the real Patton did in the 1930s. On the other hand, correction: the voice is not particularly desperate per se, but the colors that Bob has irrevocably lost in his singing, he is still able to elicit from the players — the atmosphere of trouble and confusion is brilliantly conveyed with the fussy banjo and acoustic guitar parts.
As far as I can tell, there are no highs or lows on Love And Theft whatsoever — be they retro-rockers or retro-ballads, all of these songs, no exceptions, satisfy their modest goals more or less equally. And I stress «modest»: not even ʽSugar Babyʼ, the nearly seven-minute long solemn outro, for which Bob is saving most of his (intentionally) clichéd grand maxims ("love is pleasing, love is teasing, love's not an evil thing"), could be said to truly aspire to something grandiose, it merely winds down the album with some pleasant atmospherics.
But I propose that we all try to find this an adorable solution. This is a perfect formula for a 60-year old who has said all the important things he had to say, and now he's only got three options — die from histoplasmosis (failed), retire into painting and memoir writing (done that, but still got free time to fill), or continue to make «middle-of-the-road» music that would be adequate to his age, pleasant to the ear (as far as possible, with that voice), tasteful, and, most importantly, full of that routine old-age wisdom that, fortunately enough, still prevents us from treating our elders in a Ballad of Narayama manner. Love And Theft satisfies all those conditions — and sets in motion an easily-repeated formula that Bob, with only minor variations, would employ for all of his ensuing output in the new millennium, even at the risk of getting too predictable and pigeonholeable. But then, here is a man who has certainly earned the right to predictability, after fourty long years of rough seas and cerebral turmoil. Thumbs up.
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