Dylan paints another masterpiece
Dylan paints another masterpiece

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 4, 2001) -- The best album of the year and the first great album of the 21st century will be released officially next Tuesday, Sept. 11, when Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft” (Columbia) goes on sale.

The album is at once vintage Bob Dylan, harkening back to the surreal narratives of “Blonde on Blonde” and the electric blues-rock of “Highway 61 Revisited.” But it is also possibly Dylan’s most musical album ever, incorporating old-time fiddle music, jazz, western-swing, parlor songs, classic pop songwriting and blues, all rendered with a straightforward directness by Dylan’s well-honed touring band. They’re a versatile crew – the best, most sympathetic backup musicians since Dylan toured with The Band -- including multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (guitar, violin, banjo, mandolin), guitarist Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer David Kemper, supplemented by keyboardist Augie Meyers and of course Dylan himself, who handles guitar and piano chores and who produced the album himself under the moniker “Jack Frost.”

“Love and Theft” is fresh-sounding, upbeat and electric in every sense of the word. It is old-fashioned and up-to-date, funny and tragic, Dionysian and Apollonian, and quintessentially American. Its narrator is alternately caught at the end of his rope (“I’m short on gas, my motor’s startin’ to stall,” “I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past”) and ready for another round (“Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow/Things should start to get interesting right about now,” “Feel like a fighting rooster/Feel better than I ever felt”). Full of life, the songs concern both the material here-and-now (“All I know is that I’m thrilled by your kiss/I don’t know any more than this”) while also being utterly absorbed by the spiritual plane that pervades our existence (“I can see what everybody in the world is up against…. One day you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see where we are”).

The songs on “Love and Theft” pick up where Dylan left off on 1997’s Grammy Award-winning “Time Out of Mind.” A claustrophobic meditation on loss of faith and mortality, that album ended with the narrator plunging back into the Lewis Carroll-like, surrealistic world of “Highlands.”

The dozen songs on “Love and Theft” are the legitimate spawn of “Highlands,” out-in-the-world story-songs full of startling couplets, whimsy, philosophical and literary allusions. The closest parallel in Dylan’s own work, musically and thematically, is “The Basement Tapes,” the collection of songs he created off the cuff with members of The Band. But on “Love and Theft,” every song is a finely-etched classic, Dylan at his finest ever in terms of polished songcraft. Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter, move over.

Dylan -- whose fall tour stops at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on November 19 and Boston’s Fleet Center on November 24 -- also rocks out as hard as ever on “Love and Theft,” kicking off with “Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” a worthy update of “Highway 61” that could be about George W. Bush and Al Gore or any pair of losers who are hard to differentiate.

“Honest With Me” is a scorching blues-rocker dripping with sarcastic venom – “You say that my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice/Well, I’d sell it to you at a reduced price” – and propelled by a chugging beat out of Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.”

The swing-fueled jump-blues of “Summer Days” is chock full of pointed couplets that will undoubtedly have Dylanologists scratching below the surface for months parsing lines like “I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car/The girls all say, ‘You’re a worn out star!’/My pockets are loaded and I’m spendin’ every dime,” “She’s lookin’ into my eyes, she’s holdin’ my hand/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 “Where do you come from? Where do you go?/Sorry, that is nothin’ you would need to know/Well, my back’s been to the wall so long, it seems like it’s stuck.”

It’s impossible to hear these lines and not think Dylan is spinning about himself. But then again, as I write these words, the complete lyrics to the songs on “Love and Theft,” with annotations ranging from Donizetti to Frank Sinatra, William Shakespeare, Virgil, William Blake, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nick Cave among others, have already been posted on fan sites on the Internet and are being hotly debated.

Dylan is as emotionally naked as ever on “Love and Theft.” Quoting lines like “My parents, they warned me not to waste my years/And I still got their advice oozing out of my ears,” and “I’m forty miles from the mill, I’m dropping it into overdrive/Set my dial on the radio, I wish my mother was still alive,” can’t capture the depth of pain and intimacy Dylan conjures in his broken voice.

“Love and Theft” is bookended by two of Dylan’s greatest epics. After the rock-fueled opener, “Tweedle Dee,” the album settles in for the panoramic ballad, “Mississippi,” which is sure to have fans rushing back to Sheryl Crow’s “Globe Sessions” album wondering how the world could have overlooked this gem on the level of “Blind Willie McTell.”

Dylan is rarely casual about how he ends an album, and “Love and Theft” does not disappoint here either. “Sugar Baby” fades in on a pulsating organ chord before the acoustic guitar plays the accordion-inflected riff that powers the ballad which invokes the spiritual light that bathes all existence – the light which presumably Dylan felt a few years ago when he nearly went to see Elvis.

The album’s entire sentiments are summarized in the song’s verse that goes, “Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick/Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick/Any minute of the day the bubble can burst/Try to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse.”

That these lines roll of Dylan’s tongue with the ease of more seemingly mellifluous lines like “Sugar baby, get on down the line, you ain’t got no sense, nohow/
You went years without me; might as well keep going now” is simply a further tribute to Dylan’s talent as the greatest vocalist of our time and author of the truly great American songbook – a.k.a., the complete works of Bob Dylan.

Or, as a friend wrote me the other day about Dylan’s latest masterpiece, “this album has caused me to cross the animal/human line, and the same for my dog.”


[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Sept. 6, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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