"The songs 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 one or volume two. Without the hits - not yet, anyway. [The songs] are variations on the 12-bar theme and blues-based melodies. The music here is an electronic grid, the lyrics being the structure that holds it all together" Bob Dylan June 2001.
"Love And Theft" Bob Dylan's forty-third album was released on September 11th 2001, a date that will stay in most people's minds for an entirely different reason. Few, if any, contemporary musicians can claim that sort of output, and coming almost forty years after the release of his debut album, "Love And Theft" sees Dylan at the very top of his game, indeed history may record this as his masterpiece. Having been written off so often by so many, he greeted the new millennium with an album of such quality that it would surprise even his most diehard admirers. Here is a collection of twelve potential classics spanning the entire gamut of popular music styles in which Dylan and his excellent backing band do not put a foot wrong. Blues, rock, swing and bluegrass, it's all here, some of it surprising but all of it handled in masterly fashion, due in no small part to the superlative work of multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and bassist Tony Garnier who has played with Dylan longer and more often than anybody. But let's not forget the writing, an area where Dylan is still head and shoulders above his nearest rival, and here he proves once again that he is the best wordsmith on the planet. All of Dylan's favourite themes are here, disillusionment, despair, betrayal, broken relationships and alienation and he even throws in a few jokes for good measure, all delivered with deadpan adroitness. Coming four years after the triple Grammy winner "Time Out Of Mind" this album would also be awarded a Grammy, for best contemporary folk album, and Rolling Stone magazine gave it five stars, the first album to receive such an accolade since R.E.M.'s "Automatic For The People" in 1992. For the first time since the heady days of the sixties, Dylan had followed a brilliant album with an even better one.
The album fades in on the rocker "Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum" and we are into an area that few but Dylan would venture, the adult fairy tale. Based on the two losers of the title, this bizarre tale of surreal events is perfect for Dylan's hilariously straight-faced delivery and the rockabilly backing. More than a hat tip to Elvis with its reference to Sun (records) and "...his masters voice" the song rattles along at a great pace as we learn of the various adventures (or misadventures) of these two bizarre characters. The lyrics are of course infuriatingly obscure, but this is typical of Dylan who loves to play games with his listeners, what are the "Two big bags of dead man's bones" and how could these two idiots "...know the secrets of the breeze." What is not in doubt is the expertise of the musicians, it was an excellent idea to take the band into the studio, the time they have spent on the road pays off in spades here. But the point of the album is Dylan's lyrics and his delivery of them, listen to the delightfully convoluted "Well, a childish dream is a deathless need/And a noble truth is a sacred creed" and try and puzzle it out if you dare.
The first time I heard "Mississippi" I knew that I was listening to classic Dylan, and that opinion has only been strengthened with each subsequent listening. One of the many high points on the album, it does not contain any of the dark humour found in many of the other songs, perhaps because it comes from an earlier time. It was originally destined for inclusion on "Time Out Of Mind" but omitted because Dylan and producer Daniel Lanois could not get the sound they wanted. Sheryl Crow recorded a version for her 1998 album "The Globe Sessions," and as good as that version is, this one leaves it standing. This is a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, trapped in a situation he cannot understand or control "City's just a jungle, more games to play/Trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away/I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town/I been in trouble since I set my suitcase down." We never learn why he "Stayed in Mississippi a day too long" but there is probably a woman at the core of it, perhaps the mysterious Rosie, and if you can listen to the way Dylan sings "Walkin' through the leaves, fallin' from the trees/Feelin' like a stranger nobody sees/So many things that we never will undo/I know your sorry, I'm sorry too" without it raising the hairs on your arms, then turn off your cd player and go and check if you still have a pulse. Similarly, the intriguingly simple lines "Some people will offer you their hand and some won't/Last night I knew you, tonight I don't" perfectly describe intricacies of a relationship, and few lines sum up the lack of one better than "Well, the emptiness is endless, cold as the clay/You can always come back, but you can't come back all the way." This really is Dylan at his very best, the vocal is wonderful and the able assistance of the studio band, particularly drummer David Kemper make this one for sustained listening.
"Summer Days" is a gem of a song that is sadly liable to be overlooked because of the exalted company that it is in. The theme of the song seems to be an impending wedding, the humour is rich and the word play very amusing, but again the strength of the song lies in the delivery "Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing/I'm standing on the table I'm proposing a toast to the king" sings Dylan in yet another reference to Elvis. He also has a few digs at his own failings "I'm driving in the flats in a Cadillac car/The girls all say you're a worn out star" (apparently a true story) and his inability to learn from mistakes "...You can't repeat the past/I say, You can't. What do you mean you can't. Of course you can." He has his comic hat firmly on his head in this, possibly the fastest song that he has ever recorded "Well, my back's been to the wall so long it feels like it's stuck/Why don't you break my heart one more time just for good luck?" and "Politicians got on his joggin' shoes/Must be runnin' for office got no time to lose," but the best is the beautifully vague "I got my hammer ringin' pretty baby, but the nails ain't goin' down." The song ends with him contemplating an act of sabotage "Well, I'm leaving in the morning just as soon as the dark clouds lift/I'm breakin' the roof, set fire to the place as a partin' gift" in return for all the betrayal he obviously feels that he has suffered.
If "Bye And Bye" sounds familiar, it is probably because the melody is based on "Blue Moon" which Dylan recorded for 1970's "Self Portrait" It's difficult to imagine Dylan crooning (yes crooning) a country blues number, but he not only gets away with it, he does it with style. There is more self-deprecating humour here, and it is hard to think of some of these lines being sung with a straight face, "I'm sittin' on my watch so I can be on time" sings Dylan, deadpan, and the image of him "...paintin' the town, swingin' my partner around" is just incredible. This is a man trying to convince himself that he is happy "I'm tellin' myself that I've found true happiness/I've still got a dream that hasn't been repossessed" and almost convincing himself, "I'm rollin' slow, goin' where the wild roses grow." There is some great writing here, and the wistful paradox of "Well, the future for me is already a thing of the past" echoes the earlier "I'm drowning in the poison, got no future got no past," and when he sings "You were my first love and you will be my last," I think it is safe to assume that he is talking about his music. In a 2001 interview Dylan said "I don't even consider this work as part of my life...My life is private and personal and completely filled up." and as much as one would like to endorse those sentiments, it is difficult to believe that he can divorce his real life from such personal lyrics.
The vocal on "Lonesome Day Blues," which Rolling Stone described thus "...Dylan growls like a bear cat that hasn't eaten since the eighties" is something to behold, every time I listen to it I wonder if he will make it to the end. He does of course, backed by one of the best blues-rock guitar riffs that you will ever hear. This is a straight blues number that has some of the lyrics taking us back to the previous album "...my mind a million miles away" "...she was standing in the door(way)" and of course the whispering wind from "Highlands" This is a man isolated by the deaths of various family members (Beatty Zimmerman died 25th January 2000 and there are other references to her on this album) and who feels that life has dealt him an unfair hand "Funny, the things you have the hardest time parting with, are the things you need the least" he says philosophically. He also seems confused about his sexuality (!) and brags about his celibacy "Samantha Brown lived in my house for 'bout four or five months/Don't know how it looked to other people, I never slept with her even once." Death, destructive storms and collapsed roads are all grist to Dylan's mill in this tale that ends with the warning "You're gonna need my help sweetheart, you can't make love all by yourself."
On first listening, "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" seems like one of the strangest songs on the album. After several listenings it remains strange but it also becomes one of the best and has a depth that is found in Dylan's best work. The narrator describes a seemingly idyllic existence "Another one of them endless days" and his romantic attachment "I'm in love with my second cousin/I tell myself I could be happy forever with her" We don't know where the "here" is in the lines "Well, the old men 'round here/Sometimes they get on bad terms/With the younger men" but we assume that it is somewhere down south. There is an undercurrent of menace with the description of the boss's hanger-on who tries to "Inspire you with fear" but "...it has the opposite effect," one of the many contradictions or paradoxes to be found here. The menace is reciprocated with the lines "If you ever try to to interfere with me/Or cross my path again/You do so at the peril of your own life" as our narrator makes it quite plain that he will protect his life and lifestyle. He tells us of his father, who is like some "...feudal lord" (odd description) and has more lives than a cat, and his grandparents, a ducktrapper and a seamstress, so his pedigree is not in any doubt. The whole song has a lazy afternoon feel to it, fishing, school bells, bees buzzing and pine wood burning, but the feeling of intimidation is never far away. This is true right at the end, when after setting the scene of dreams and hopes, Dylan hits us with "Not always easy kicking someone out/Gotta wait a while it can be an unpleasant task/Sometimes someone wants you to give something up/And tears or not, it's too much to ask," the inherent selfishness of human nature in a nutshell.
"High Water" is another stand-out track. Dedicated to Charley Patton (Patton was one of the foremost Mississippi delta bluesmen, a violent alcoholic, he died in 1934 aged forty three), this song sees Dylan in great form lyrically - where else could you hear "I got a cravin' love for blazin' speed/I got a hopped up Mustang Ford/Jump into the wagon, love/Throw your panties overboard," and who else could get away with it? Elvis Costello, one of the many that Dylan has inspired over the years said "His phrasing is absolutely unbelievable...you're not listening to him to hear sweet-voiced singing, you're listening to him to get the feeling he's singing about" and feeling is what this song is all about. Backed by Larry Campbell's amazing banjo, this is one of Dylan's best vocal performances ever, listen to "It's tough out there" or "It's rough out there" or the final, and best "It's bad out there." References to Patton's songs are numerous "Shake It And Break It," "Kansas City" and "High Sheriff Blues" along with Robert Johnson's "Dust My Broom" and the traditional ballad "The Cuckoo" but this song belongs to nobody but Dylan. The ramshackle and chaotic imagery of "Coffins droppin' in the street like balloons made out of lead" and "I asked Fat Nancy for somethin' to eat, she said take it off the shelf/As great as you are man, you'll never be greater than yourself" are reminiscent of the mid sixties, but this brilliant piece sits perfectly on this album.
Equally superbly written and performed though totally different in style is "Moonlight," one of the album's surprises. The wonderful opening lines "The seasons they are turning and my sad heart is yearning/To hear again the songbird's sweet melodious tone" never fail to raise a smile, and at three and a half minutes the song is too short. The vocal here reminds me of the "Nashville Skyline" voice, but not as contrived, and how Dylan gets away with some of this audacious rhyming is beyond me. Writing in The Guardian in 2001, Alex Petridis said "When he sings "Won't you meet me out in the moonlight alone" it sounds less like a romantic assignation than the soundtrack of a public-information film warning children not to talk to strangers" and though that may be true, the vocal still works. I love this song, purely because it is so different to anything Dylan has ever done before, and I shake my head in astonishment whenever I hear the marvellous "The clouds are turnin' crimson, the leaves fall from the limbs 'n'/The branches cast their shadows over stone." This is the only song on the album that can be taken at face value as a simple love ditty, or so you think until you hear the vaguely sinister "For whom does the bell toll for, love/It tolls for you and me" simplicity is not something we expect from Dylan, and thankfully we don't get it either.
"Honest With Me" is a great rock number, in total contrast to its predecessor. Here Dylan is back in the familiar territory of betrayal and women who can't be trusted "Well, I'm stranded in the city that never sleeps/Some of these women just give me the creeps" is the blunt opening, and after telling us that his memories are strangling him, he admits "I'm not sorry for nothing I've done." There is an equal mix of comedy and seriousness here, with another contradictory image "My woman got a face like a teddy-bear/She's tossin' a baseball bat in the air" and the wonderfully tongue in cheek "They say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice/Well, I'd sell it to ya at a reduced price." He saves one of his worst (but strangely fitting) puns for the penultimate verse "I'm stark naked but I don't care/I'm goin' off into the woods I'm huntin' bare" (teddy-bear?). Jokes aside, we see some of Dylan's best writing on this album, and this song is no exception, the lines "I care so much for you, didn't think I could/I can't tell my heart that you're no good" have a certain familiarity even though they are delivered in such an off-hand manner. The revue in Rolling Stone summed it up perfectly "...the world has gone wrong, women are doing him wrong - but his tone has shifted."
If it's jokes you are looking for, look no further than "Po' Boy," a country blues number that sees Dylan venturing into territory that Groucho Marx would have thought twice about. This is one to be filed under "oddities," an absurd collection of thoughts and ideas based loosely on the story of the prodigal son. Dylan himself perhaps gives us the key with the line "The game is the same it's just upon another level" and even throws in a quip about Othello and Desdemona (Romeo and Juliet appeared in "Floater"), and few things could describe a lifetime of bitter experience better than the line "Time and love has branded me with its claws." The mood is lifted with the inclusion of the ancient joke "Po' boy in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom/Called down to room service said, Send up a room" delivered in such a deadpan manner that you almost expect to hear a rimshot or a boom boom after it. This and the knock knock joke that follows it leave us wondering whether there is a future in comedy should Dylan's muse desert him.
We are back into the blues rock mode for "Cry A While," the song that was performed at the Grammies in 2002. Some excellent guitar work by Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton finds Dylan back in the guise of a spurned lover, one who receives little or no recognition for his good deeds, after sorting out "Mr.Goldsmith" the "...nasty, dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing phony" all he gets in return is a smile. He is, however, very sure of himself here, "I don't carry dead weight, I'm no flash in the pan" and "Feel like a fighting rooster, feel better than I ever felt" assures us of that, but he does allow us a glimpse of the truth "I'm on the fringes of the night fighting back tears I can't control/Some people they ain't human, they got no heart or soul." He tells his erstwhile lover that it is her turn to "...cry awhile" and cannot resist a spiteful dig at her misfortunes "You bet on the horses, they ran the wrong way..." and there is a very sinister undertone to the line "I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial..." but after all his tears it is her turn to cry awhile.
Very often Dylan saves his best song for the last track on an album, with "Love And Theft" the final track "Sugar Baby" almost defies description. Nobody else can write like this and I don't think anybody else could get anything like the emotion that Dylan gets into this seven minutes of transcendence. Utterly beautiful and totally moving, this is an acceptance of the futility of life and love and the acknowledgement that happiness is fleeting, but strangely it comes across as positive. "...sometimes we push too far/One day you'll open up your eyes and you'll see where you are" he tells us, and the second verse offers perhaps the strangest line on the whole album "Some of these bootleggers, they make pretty good stuff." He is surely talking about music bootleggers, and given his well documented disdain for them (he was particularly scathing in 1985 on the "Biograph" liner notes) it seems unlikely that he would praise them in any way at all. But back to the matter in hand, we find Dylan in typically caustic mood "Sugar baby get on down the road, you ain't got no brains nohow/You went years without me, might as well keep goin' now" he says with a verbal shrug of the shoulders, and when he sings the line "Some of these memories you can learn to live with, some of 'em you can't" the depth of feeling is almost tangible. There is a doom laden air of destiny about "You always got to be prepared, but you never know for what" and inevitably "There ain't no limit to the amount of trouble women can bring" but on the up side "Love is pleasing, love is teasing, love's not an evil thing." He is ready to throw in the towel with the fatalistic "Every moment of existence is like some dirty trick/Happiness can come suddenly, and leave just as quick" and his timing with the line "Try to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse" is quite astonishing. The bleak resignation he feels is carried into the last verse, but there is a glimmer of spiritual hope "Just as sure as we're living, just as sure as you're born/Look up, look up, seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn." Like all the songs on this album, the printed words do not do justice to the lyrics as they are sung, this rich mix of humour, wisdom and heart-rending realness can only be appreciated by being listened to.
"Love And Theft" was written and recorded in a short but obviously productive two weeks in the spring of 2001, Dylan's sixtieth birthday occurred during the sessions and when asked how he celebrated it he said "I blew out the candles, ate some cake and went to bed." It was almost universally hailed as a masterpiece on its release, Rolling Stone said the music evoked "...a world of seedy old-time gin palaces, fast cash, poisoned whiskey, guilty strangers trying not to make eye contact and pickpockets slapping out-of-towners on the back" and that Dylan's voice sounded like"...a grizzled con man croaking biblical blues and Tin Pan Alley valentines out of the side of his mouth while keeping one eye on the exit." Billboard, more pragmatically, described it as "A sublime 12 song rumination on fleeting romance and enduring memory, the poetry of place names and the potency of song" and Village Voice recalling the gloominess of Dylan's previous album referred to it as "...his immortality album." UK journalists were typically less gushing, Alan Jackson, in the Times said "It is hard to believe that "Love And Theft" will do anything other than continue this process of Dylan's critical and commercial rehabilitation" and Alex Petridis of the Guardian was more cautious "..."Love And Theft" is as cranky and erratic an album as 2001 is likely to bring." Dylan produced the album himself, using the name Jack Frost and was back on tour in Europe less than a month after the recording sessions were done with. He resumed his US tour in October of 2001 and where all but one of the songs was given a live debut. At the time of writing, "Bye And Bye" has never been played live, but the others have become concert standards as he continues his endless and punishing schedule of non-stop touring. "Love And Theft" may prove to be Dylan's swan-song in terms of studio recordings, although I hope I am wrong in this. If however that is the case and all we have to look forward to is an endless stream of greatest hits packages, then Dylan could have left us no better legacy than this wonderful album.