Like his good friend Johnny Cash, whose last three albums were among his best, Bob Dylan is on a late-career roll. Four years ago, he graced us with Time Out of Mind, a somber meditation on love and life. Dylan was 56 at the time; his voice was shot, and so (it seemed) was his soul. World-weary and "sick of love," he mused about how he was "trying to get to heaven before they close the door." (Not long after recording the album, he nearly found himself knockin' on heaven's door when he was hospitalized with a potentially fatal heart infection.) His Academy Award-winning song "Things Have Changed," from the movie Wonder Boys, plowed similar ground.
Love and Theft doesn't pack quite the punch that Time Out of Mind did, but it's nearly as good. There are traces of regret and bitterness, but for the most part, Dylan is in a playful mood this time around. He even throws a silly knock-knock joke into one song, a gentle country-blues number called "Po' Boy": "Knockin' on the door, I say, 'Who is it, where you from?'/ Man say, 'Freddie,' I say, 'Freddie who?'/ He say, 'Freddie or not, here I come.'" It's that kind of album.
Recorded in New York with his blazing-hot road band (guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper) augmented by organist Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornados), Love and Theft is a scrapbook of American musical styles: blues, country, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley, even a little jazz. Lyrically, the album's twelve songs tend toward the obscure. They're full of odd characters like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Fat Nancy and Don Pasquale -- distant cousins of Captain Arab ("Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"), Mack the Finger ("Highway 61 Revisited") and Tiny Montgomery. Just as Time Out of Mind reminded some of Blood on the Tracks, Love and Theft recalls The Basement Tapes.
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"She's got everything she needs/She's an artist, she don't look back," Dylan sang 36 years ago in "She Belongs to Me." It's obvious, however, that Dylan -- who turned sixty this past May -- is looking back quite a bit these days. (Reportedly, he's working on an autobiography.) "So many things that we never will undo/I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too," he ruminates in the wistful ballad "Mississippi," one of Love's highlights. In "Bye and Bye," a Hoagy Carmichael-style shuffle, he croons, "The future for me is already a thing of the past/You were the first love and you will be my last." Yet in the very same song, he's "singin' love's praises with sugarcoated rhyme," and in "Moonlight," his sad heart "is yearning/To hear again the songbird's sweet melodious tone." There's a spirit of optimism that pervades the album. The "summer days and summer nights are gone," he laments in "Summer Days," but then quickly adds, "I know a place where there's still something going on."
On Love and Theft, Dylan, who performs at the Denver Coliseum on October 21, comes across as a man who's happy just to be alive and kicking. As he recently told the Los Angeles Times, "Any day above the ground is a good day." Amen to that, brother.