CK Retro Review: “Love And Theft” by Bob Dylan

Time Out Of Mind got the Grammy love, but 2001’s “Love And Theft” is the album that cemented Bob Dylan’s resurgence to musical heights he previously scaled in the 60’s and 70’s. Whereas on the previous record he sounded wounded, bereft, and near the end of the line, Dylan’s various narrators on “Love And Theft” are ribald, fierce, funny, and generally unapologetic about the way they live their rough-and-tumble lives. The musical settings, ranging from bruising blues to vintage torch songs, are also perfectly tuned to Bob’s vibrant words. Here is a song-by-song review.

THREE STARS

12. “Bye And Bye”- There are no weak moments on “Love And Theft” really and, as on previous masterpieces like Blood On The Tracks, every song is essential in its way. So there is no shame in this ranking for “Bye And Bye,” which it occupies only because it’s a tad on the slight and frivolous side, even as it’s a genuine joy to hear.

11. “Floater (Too Much To Ask)”- It’s a bit of an odd bird of a song, bouncing amiably along before being interrupted by Larry Campbell’s violin which sounds as if it’s the from the soundtrack of an old serial cliffhanger. There’s a lot going on in the lyrics, and bits and pieces rise to the surface to shine, like the narrator’s surprisingly moving descriptions of his grandparents. The real highlight is hearing Dylan finesse those wordy lines while staying in character.

10. “Cry Awhile”- Dylan’s protagonist here is no softie; he lives in the “fringes of the night” and deals with unsavory characters and situations that aren’t for the timid. Yet he gets twisted and turned by the girl who penetrates his rough exterior and brings tears. Nothing penetrates the exterior of the music, however; it stays thunderous and nasty all the way home.

9. “Honest With Me”- Dylan took over production duties on his albums starting with “Love And Theft”, and he has generally favored pre-rock sounds for his songs. “Honest With Me” is as close as it gets to modern music on the album, churning along with brawny guitars at a pretty good tempo. It seems to set him free as a lyricist to absolutely lose his mind, as nudity, baseball bats, crashed cars, and Siamese twins all make appearances. It’s a wild ride, but a thrilling one.

8. “Po’ Boy”- This is one of those songs that would seem like a terrible idea if someone described it to you, yet it ends up being irresistibly charming. On the musical surface, it’s a gentle stroll of a song with a hint of melancholy in the melody. Yet the lyrics are full of hammy, eye-rolling humor, jokes that are older than Dylan himself. Still, you can’t help but laugh. Credit goes to Bob’s comic timing and the warm spirit that he exudes.

FOUR STARS

7. “Moonlight”- This song succeeds if for no other reason that it gives Dylan a chance to flex his poetic muscles over a lilting melody. His descriptions of his surroundings bring every sight, sound, and smell vividly forth, and he sings those tongue-twisters beautifully. Once he has the listener in awe, he goes for the heart with the sweetly direct refrain: “Won’t you meet me out in the moonlight alone?” This guy is such a sweet-talker, she’d be a fool not to.

6. “Summer Days”- Dylan lets his band, one of the best he ever assembled for an album, do much of the heavy lifting here. The dueling guitars of Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell cut loose on a 50’s-style blues, while the rhythm section of Tony Garnier and David Kemper keep things hopping. Bob has a blast with the strutting, braggadocious tone of the lyrics; the guy he portrays here definitely sounds like he knows “where there’s still somethin’ going on.” You get the idea that “somethin'” might be a lot of fun even if it’s ultimately not good for you.

5. “Lonesome Day Blues”- His voice raw and powerful behind a grinding blues-rock backdrop, Dylan sinks his teeth into a meaty set of hard-hearted lyrics. Bob has always taken advantage of the blues template rather than having his songwriting be restricted by it. On a song like “Lonesome Day Blues,” the anticipation builds up each time the first line of the stanza is repeated, because the completing line is always a killer. He’s done so many songs in his late-period Renaissance like this that they can be taken for granted. When they’re this good, they shouldn’t be.

4. “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum”- Lewis Carroll likely never envisioned his pesky pair being rendered quite like this. As written by Dylan, these two troublemakers seem even more dangerous because of the incompetence and ignorance they seem to possess. Bongos and twisting guitars help make for a thrilling recording, as Bob barks out his couplets with forceful menace. Are they old friends? Rival politicians? Twin poles of the songwriter’s psyche? That’s for the listener to decide and Bob to know, but we can all agree that this dastardly duo make fascinating subject matter.

FIVE STARS

3. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”- The flood here is metaphorical, which makes it harder to spot but no less devastating once it washes over you. People made connections to 9/11 based on some of the lyrics (the album was released on that infamous day), but Bob’s focus here seems to be on some of the traditions and tragedies that make up the history of the American South, making this a companion piece in a way to “Blind Willie McTell.” Campbell’s banjo walks hand-in-hand with Bob’s haunting imagery. The songwriting, the singing, the instrumental work: Everything here is absolutely in the pocket for a dark beauty of a song.

2. “Mississippi”- After numerous failed attempts to record the song with Daniel Lanois for Time Out Of Mind (several of those can be heard on Tell Tale Signs), Dylan took the song back and put it inside of an elegant, acoustic arrangement. That arrangement allowed Dylan’s stirring melody and lovely lyrics to come to the fore. For much of the song, the narrator is haunted by regrets and the circumstances that have pulled him and his love apart. Yet the final verses admit some light into the picture, as Dylan expresses the hope and gratitude that make an already wonderful song even more profound.

1. “Sugar Baby”- It’s the perfect closing song for the album because it’s the antithesis of all that has come before it. After an album’s worth of threats, jokes, and devil-may-care attitude, the bill comes due on “Sugar Baby.” Droning acoustic guitars pick out a chord pattern that sounds alternately heartbroken and resigned to its fate. The narrator makes woefully wise observations and shoos the title character away because he can’t bear to see her dragged down into the abyss with him. Considering the overall top-to-bottom quality of the album, saying that Dylan saved the best for last on “Love And Theft” is all you need to know about the greatness of “Sugar Baby.”

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, available now at all major online booksellers.)

http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0810888238

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6 Comments on “CK Retro Review: “Love And Theft” by Bob Dylan”

  1. PK says:

    I don’t think the Narrator of Sugar Baby is protecting her. I’ve always gotten the impression that he’s finally breaking it off with someone who he knows is bad for him, it’s kind of like “you never cared about me before, don’t pretend now”.

    Great write up, but I’d actually swap Sugar Baby and Cry Awhile. I find that Sugar Baby drags a bit. Actually your 3-stars, are my fave tracks on the album. Of course Highwater and Mississippi are the classics of the album, but Floater, Honest, and Cry get to me on a personal level.

    And Po Boy sigh… I always associate this one with a friend I had that passed away the week the album came out, so it’s a gut punch every time he’s “making the rounds and fallin’ between the cars”

  2. JS says:

    It was great to have “Mississippi” included as I’d only heard the Sheryl Crow version at the time.
    I think the band sounds fabulous on this record, but I do find Dylan’s voice a bit grating, especially listening to the entire album in one siting. I can take a lot of what many would consider “ragged” voices (Dylan, Cohen, Waits), but on Love and Theft I find it fatiguing to the ear after awhile.

  3. Mississippi ranks up there for me in the top Dylan songs.

    The 9/11 connection is here as well:
    Sky full of fire, pain pourin’ down
    Nothing you can sell me, I’ll see you around.

    There are so many great lines in Mississippi, as a matter of fact every verse is amazing.

    Thanks, as always, for the post and keep up the good work.

  4. Shabtai says:

    IMO Mississippi is one of Dylan great creations.
    It is on another level of the rest of the album.
    If you take just the opening lines ” Every step of the way we walked the line, Your days are numbered so are mine” , and the closing lines “You can always come back ,but you can’t come back all the way ” they can be an inspiration to other new songs , assays and stories.
    That besides many other intriguing and captivating lines all over the song, and besides the hunting tune that similar to Desolation Row, in spite of its length you want it to go on forever.
    I don’t know another song which reflects such a variety of emotions and thoughts some of them conflicting) , in a perfect masterpiece.

  5. hans altena says:

    Once more a good characterization of an album that in my opinion is his masterpiece of his late period together with Tempest and closely followed by Modern Times, while the moving Time out of Mind serves as a wonderful intro to this puzzling era of his last resurgence. In one of the replies the voice of Dylan gets criticized, but to me here the gravelled blues sound of his indeed ravaged voice reaches its height, still allowing for fine nuances and impeccable phrasing, not yet hampered by having to deal with a tired larynx (which in fact he does in a great way on Tempest in choosing for whispered yet forceful and delightful inflections inspired by a melody more hinted at than expressed, try it once, it’s more difficult than you think and I am a singer so I might know). Of course it remains a matter of taste, but I don’t understand how on one side many who love Tom Waits his theatrical wheezing and screaching and hollering, though impressive on its own merits, dismiss the honest down to earth raw power of Dylan’s singing in which the blood of the land is tasted. Anyway, here and on Tempest and in some of the best songs (many…) on Modern Times, the sheer lyrical prowess of Dylan is unsurpassed and can stand the comparison with the surrealistic richness of 65-67 (Basement Tapes included) and the romantic sharpness of 74-78, it is just as unique. By playing around with old texts and songs and emulating them in a mythical context all of his own where not only America but all that is old and eternal is reflected and put to the tesrt by placing it in an apocalyptic perspective somewhere on a border of dead roads that look out on mountains (of the past or future? or beyond which lies nothing?). And in that way he once again gives a poetic (against his own will maybe even prophetic) vision of our time…


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