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.
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.