There are some things in life that can always be counted on. Death. Taxes. The changing of the seasons.
And Bob Dylan.
Dylan long ago secured his place in the annals of music history after his contribution to the 60s protest movement yielded such unforgettable classics as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times, They Are a Changin’,” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” But Dylan, who turned 60 this May, has shown few signs of slowing down after four full decades of writing and rewriting music history. Instead, the former counterculture icon is experiencing a renaissance: Dylan won three Grammys for his last album, 1997’s brooding “Time Out of Mind,” and an Oscar earlier this year for his song “Things Have Changed.” On his new album, “Love and Theft,” Dylan continues to extend the limits of artistic longevity.
As the times have changed, so has Dylan. Though the poet’s two recent works both bear his distinct trademark of folk rock and candid lyrical insight, “Love and Theft” bears little resemblance in mood to “Time Out of Mind.” While “Time Out of Mind” delves into angst and alienation reminiscent of Dylan’s 1974 masterpiece “Blood on the Tracks,” “Love and Theft” is a return to the more lively and irresponsible blues and folk of Dylan’s 60s works.
For what “Love and Theft” lacks in reflection, it more than makes up for in wit, as Dylan reveals he has not lost his sense of humor. The songwriter makes an amusing plea to a lover on the hard rocking “Lonesome Day Blues:” “You’re gonna need my help sweetheart/ you can’t make love all by yourself.” Dylan also incorporates smooth, seemingly accidental rhymes throughout, like in the graceful “Moonlight.” Sings Dylan, “Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief/ it takes a thief to catch a thief/ for whom does the bell toll for love/ it tolls for you and me.” And on the spirited folk song “Po’ Boy,” Dylan’s lyrics have the feel of a children’s nursery rhyme: “All I know is that I’m thrilled by your kiss/ I don’t know any more than this/ Poor boy pickin’ up sticks/ build your house out of mortar and bricks.”
Musically, “Love and Theft” is also a stylistic triumph. Dylan successfully revisits all the musical genres he has mastered during his 40-plus years writing songs: folk, blues, rock, country, bluegrass and even jazz. The album has a very upbeat, traditional feel, as Dylan uses mostly acoustic guitars and banjos to carry the melodies. On “Love and Theft,” Dylan leans more on 12-bar blues arrangements than in any of his recent works. One song, “Honest with Me,” features searing slide guitar work emphasizing the intensity and urgency of Dylan’s urban ballad. On “Summer Days,” Dylan recreates vintage 40s swing music with such youthful vigor that one cannot help but imagine even the stoic Dylan cracking a smile. And on “Floater (Too Much To Ask),” Dylan mixes a bittersweet violin melody with stand-up bass to create a graceful and elegant mood that is often as caustic as it is harmonious. After the introverted suffering of “Time Out of Mind,” few would have thought Dylan would create such an emotional contrast on “Love and Theft.” But then, Dylan has never been one to conform to the expectations of his fans.
Though the mood of “Love and Theft” is decidedly optimistic, Dylan does offer up several reflective moments throughout the record, and the result is the album’s strongest work. The emotional folk ballad “Mississippi” is the record’s shining moment, and Dylan’s best song since his music from the mid-70s. The music, carried by acoustic guitar, is reminiscent of his 1966 song “Visions of Johanna,” and the lyric is one of traveling, looking back on memories and regrets. “Now the emptiness is endless/ cold as the clay/ you can always come back/ but you can’t come back all the way/ only one thing I did wrong/ I stayed in Mississippi way too long.” Equally effective is the album’s final song “Sugar Daddy,” a solemn portrayal of time passed and love lost, enhanced by the ghostly, hollow melody of Dylan’s acoustic guitar and organ. Dylan also uses the song to reflect on lost opportunities: “Some of these memories you can learn to live with/ and some you can’t/ tired of making things better for someone/ sometimes you end up making them a thousand times worse.”
Dylan has grown older, but he has not lost his ability to release memorable songs and albums. Some hardcore Dylan fans may miss the stark, reflective nature of “Time Out of Mind,” but they will be sure to welcome back the more upbeat Dylan of the 60s, a Dylan who has been dormant for over a decade. This may not be the legend’s best album, but it is certainly one of his most memorable.