Bob Dylan’s voice crackles, producing a sound both hip to the world and weary of that world’s hype, deceptions and sadness. As much as Dylan’s lyrics have always conveyed his complex emotional make-up, it is his voice that accomplishes more now. Dylan’s love for Ralph Stanley’s high, lonesome tenor is clear, and it is audibly present in many of the tracks on his new album, Love and Theft, which ranks just as highly as his last solo gem, 1997’s dark and introspective Time Out of Mind. In fact, in its own way, Love and Theft is more triumphant than the previous Grammy-winning affair, if only because this is the album that finally validates Bob Dylan as a singer and performer.
His band, which has toured with him for several years, is a tight combo that deftly snaps through the rockabilly, blues, country and even swing that their enigmatic leader throws their way. Lead guitarist Charlie Sexton’s piercing fills strike at the listener, perfectly supported by the engine-room combination of rhythm guitarist Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper. Add to that the subtle, grooving piano of Texas Tornado Augie Meyers and you have a suitably brilliant set of American musicians, charged with playing a set of songs that only seems connected by their laconic brilliance.
Any amount of talk about how great the actual performances are can’t take away from the typical excellence of the songs themselves. Bob Dylan has had a spotty career, yet there may be nothing more satisfying in the music world than a Dylan album that comes out completely formed and doesn’t sound half-assed (Under the Red Sky) or simply inept (self-portrait).
Dylan has made a handful of legendary records, all of which set themselves apart by the consistently high song quality. Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks and Time Out of Mind (the five best Dylan albums previous to Love and Theft) are all outstanding collections of songs — songs that ring in the listener’s memory long after many of the exact arrangements or specific instrumentations have faded. This time, though, the sheer sounds and melodies created are arguably as memorable as the lyrical content.
Like any great Dylan record, Love and Theft has a requisite “great Dylan” song, one that captures the quintessential Dylan mixture of poetry, blues realism and humor. Here it’s “Mississippi,” which was previously recorded by Sheryl Crow. While Crow is great, the songstress’ rendition simply cannot match this performance. When lyrics like “every step of the way/we walked the line/your days are numbered/so are mine” pass through Dylan’s lips, they gain a resonant quality that no artist younger (or healthier) can give them. The song is beautiful, a mid-tempo rocker with insistent rhythm and the warm jangle of three guitars.
“Lonesome Day Blues” is a rollicking, stompy 12-bar that neither sinks completely into stylistic mimicry nor denies the qualities of the form. Again, Dylan’s sandpaper voice shines. The band is tighter than new shoes on this one.
“Floater (Too Much To Ask)” is one of the most unusual songs on the album, falling somewhere between 1930s Vaudeville, Bob Wills western swing and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
“Highwater (For Charlie Patton)” is an apocalyptic tale, complete with Biblical metaphors, that uses Campbell’s ghostly banjo to create a haunting, death-in-the-woods sound. It makes sense that the song’s title name-checks the somewhat mythical acoustic bluesman.
“Moonlight” is another old-time-ish number, with a deceptively simple romantic theme and a gently swaying backing marked by Campbell’s crying steel guitar.
“Honest With Me” is one of the few all-out rockers on the album, recalling Dylan’s previous beatnik boogies. Once again, the band’s performance makes the song, as Kemper attacks the drums with ferocity.
“Po’ Boy” is Dylan’s best vocal performance on the album, tremendously unique lounge-lizard swing that further pushes the boundaries of his sonic repertoire. He wraps his voice around the words, accentuating each syllable with an emotive precision that will shame any naysayer who bitches about his “incomprehensibility.” Subtle and affecting, it is an amazing display.
“Sugar Baby,” complete with Meyers’ accordion and Campbell’s mandolin, is the album’s one explicitly introspective song, the only one that thematically shows great similarity to Dylan’s dark journey of a previous album. Sonically, the song is a long, dusty road, the kind of vista that you might imagine mythical Western heroes encountering from time to time.
If you’ve got the opportunity (and the couple extra bucks), pick up the special limited edition, which includes a two-song bonus disc featuring a 1961 outtake (a version of the traditional “I Was Young When I Left Home”) and an alternate take on “The Times They Are-A’ Changin.” It’s definitely worth it just for “I was Young When I Left Home,” an achingly beautiful slice of hobo poetry from the beginning of Dylan’s long, strange trip.
On Love and Theft, Bob Dylan continues his seemingly endless reinvention, the reinvention that has produced some of his best work and also sad periods of self-parody that we’d surely all rather forget (the Christian troubadour of “Slow Train Coming”, for example).
Luckily, even though his new look might inspire questioning gazes (is he a Spanish cowboy from a really bad movie?), there is simply no questioning Dylan’s resurgence, begun so triumphantly on Time Out Of Mind and continued on this superior new effort.