Music

Bob Dylan: Love and Theft

Michael Stephens

On September 11, Bob Dylan released a master work buzzing and sparking with the depthless energy of American folk music and charged with a faith in the goodness and potential harmony of the human community as wild and oceanic as Whitman's.


Bob Dylan

"Love and Theft"

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2001-09-11
Amazon
iTunes

If you were bored and depressed by the whiny, self-pitying old codger complaining about his rheumatism on Time Out of Mind, and could hardly believe that "Things Have Changed" was by the same person, get ready for more better Dylan. "Things Have Changed" was not the last flare of a dying star. "Love and Theft" sees Dylan roaring back from Highway 61 at full bore, reminding us -- as he did on Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, and Blood on the Tracks -- that, like him or not, there isn't anybody else who can do his job.


From the opening, "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum", we are whirled into a maelstrom of voices and perspectives, as though Dylan is a human switchboard, directing the babble of history and culture through his music. None of the songs makes more linear sense than "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum", and it makes no sense at all. There's a pot of brains on the boil, dripping with garlic and olive oil. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are throwing knives into a tree, near two bags of dead men's bones. They own a brick and tile company. They interpret the sounds of the breeze. They are an absurd, nonsensical, sinister duo from dreamland via folk-land. The song's restless, jumping beat fades in as though we have tuned in on a wavelength that has always been there, just a hair left of the dial, and locked in a familiar but unheard music that has been evolving just out of reach.

The evolution of "Love and Theft" has been going on since Good as I Been to You and World Gone Wrong and through Time Out of Mind to the breakthrough "Things Have Changed". On the two early '90s albums, Dylan returned to the traditional repertoire that he drew from in his early coffee-house days. The critical praise those albums received, and the appearance of Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic may have inspired Dylan to go deeper into the roots influences in his own writing. Time Out of Mind was a failed attempt to splice those influences to a modern sensibility, using samples from old blues records, and muddy, ambient mixes. The album's premise seemed to be to evoke the atmosphere of folk recordings, using modern production techniques. Lanois's cosmetic approach worked for U2, a band who always hoped to link their smoke, mirrors and fairy dust stadium-rock to authentic American roots music. But Dylan already was what Lanois hoped to simulate. Nevertheless, Dylan's confidence may have been so shot that he thought he needed the Wizard of Oz to get him back to Kansas.

The three Grammies awarded to Time Out of Mind were not about the music. They were a guilty apology to a sick man from critics who had savaged him mercilessly for 20 years. Most ridiculous of all was the fatuous praise for Lanois's production, which, it was suggested, had somehow saved Dylan from his outmoded sound and made him "relevant" again. Far from being innovative, Lanois's production was a weak imitation of the Dust Brothers' work with Beck. Lanois did not revolutionize Dylan's sound, he simply made it conform to the arbitrary conventions of '90s pop. For the critics, however, Dylan with samples and loops was a good excuse to bring Dylan back in from the cold.

On "Things Have Changed", Dylan confessed: "I hurt easy, I just don't show it". On "Love and Theft" the references to the bitterness and desperation of the past 20 years are more explicit: "My back's been against the wall for so long it feels like it's stuck / Why don't you break my heart one more time just for good luck". Time Out of Mind's success served one crucial purpose: it finally broke Dylan's losing streak, gave him back some long overdue respect, and restored his confidence. With the pressure to prove himself removed for the first time in two decades, Dylan relaxed, cast a cold backward glance over his exile, and wrote the withering "Things Have Changed".

As if to demonstrate the irrelevance of Lanois's studio treatments, Dylan stripped "Things Have Changed" down to a rough, bare bones arrangement of acoustic instruments, pushed his vocal up front and let the power of the performance and the raw brilliance of the song pour out like clear water. "Things Have Changed" made everything near it sound feeble, and it pitilessly revealed Time Out of Mind's hesitancy, humorlessness, and bandwagon-jumping eagerness to please. For "Love and Theft", Dylan pointedly took over the production duties himself, and went so far as to re-record the one song on the album that was an outtake from the Time Out of Mind sessions.

The results are revelatory. As on "Things Have Changed", the sound is live, rocking, and energetic as hell. Dylan and his band power through a range of musical genres -- blues, folk rock, swing, bluegrass, rockabilly -- almost comprising a history of popular music. The changes in mood and style feel spontaneous and natural and the album rushes past, glittering, kinetic, and overwhelming as a roller-coaster.

Good as they are, there is no point in quoting lyrics. It's all about the rush as the whole tornado rolls over. "High Water" is the mid-point, a bluesy, open-ended ride through a tragi-comic apocalypse starring Joe Turner, Joe Louis, and Charles Darwin. Dylan draws on Elmore James, "I woke up this morning, I believe I'll dust my broom", and Clarence Ashley, "The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies". As he grabs lines from the traditional repertoire and positions them in his song like patches from a bygone era in a modern-day quilt, Dylan shows himself to be the natural heir to Charley Patton and Clarence Ashley: the only artist alive who can fully embody the living stream of American folk music in all its diverse currents and muddy depths.

But it's not just the patchwork of musical styles, or the mix of earthiness and vision in the lyrics, or the warmth, humor and weird ordinariness of these songs that place them in the great, democratic tradition of American folk music. Dylan has never sounded so relaxed, confident, and at home in this music that is his and not his, in this transmission rite in which he is both receiver and transmitter.

On September 11, Bob Dylan released a master work buzzing and sparking with the depthless energy of American folk music and charged with a faith in the goodness and potential harmony of the human community as wild and oceanic as Whitman's. Things have changed.

Related Articles Around the Web
9

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image