CK Retro Review: “Love And Theft” by Bob DylanPosted: July 19, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)