Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, September 28, 2001

Dylan’s album is his
best in 25 years

CD cover

"Love and Theft"
Bob Dylan

By Burl Burlingame

Where did you go, Bobby Dylan? With "Love and Theft," the once-indispensable composer leaps back into relevance as one of the primary songwriters in American pop culture.

OK, not a leap. Maybe more a rueful, awkward skip back into relevance. Dylan never went away, he was just biding his time.

And that he does it with music so determinedly old-fashioned in a creaky sort of way that it seems rather, well, Dylan-like. This music is so old it's new again.

It's his best record since "Blood on the Tracks" -- a quarter-century ago! -- but that's not saying much. He's been content to tour and play and absorb life. This is a nostalgic, reflective Dylan, but it's not a fuzzy, Hallmark view of the past. The album is full of jangles and sharp edges, and seems fresh mainly because you don't hear music like this much anymore -- with tack-sharp, yet sly and elusive lyrics; memorable melodies; grinding, white-hot Texas blues; late-night swing (brushes on drums! upright bass!) and a voice that can strip rust right off your hood. But the Zimmermeister's phrasing and inflection are spot-on; like Sinatra in the waning days, he skates by on style and hard-travelin' experience.

The band is a posse of relentless blues wranglers, including ace guitarist Charlie Sexton, who wasn't even born when Dylan's first albums were released.

The themes in the songs are observational, like his take on backwoods sharpies ("Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum") and bums on the run from guilty pasts ("High Water"); some are cranky meditations on lost love ("Mississippi" and "Moonlight") and some are flat-out rockers in the cheerfully ironic Chuck Berry mode ("Summer Days" with hysterical lyrics like "I got a house on the hill/got hogs out in the mud/got a long-haired woman/she's got old Indian blood" and "When there's a'ringin'/and the clouds are beginnin' to sing/what looks good in the day/at night it's another thing"). There's a bit of 1940s smooth jive that would sound smooth falling out of the Mills Brothers ("Bye and Bye"), swaggering full-chord blues ("Lonesome Day Blues," "Honest With Me" and "Cry a While"), a cheeky '20s Tim Pan Alley meditation on the redemptive power of fishing and the passage of years ("Floater -- Too Much to Ask") that will likely show up on Leon Redbone's next album and another in the same groove about wandering lost through life ("Po' Boy").

PLUS there's a kind of urban-country samba-jazz (no kidding) that Patsy Cline would have loved (the aforementioned "Moonlight") and a moody Scottish slow air with a haunting refrain ("Sugar Baby").

Whew. "Love and Theft" likely refers to Dylan's relationship with the mainstream of American popular music and, with this collection, he reminds us how much he's contributed to the pure art of songwriting, which -- along with film -- is the 20th century's contribution to a universal art form.

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