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Published: 2001/09/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Love and Theft – Bob Dylan

Columbia Records 86076

If ever the world needed a new Dylan album, it's now. At least, that's what
I kept telling myself as I tried to track it down, heading to a desolate
Times Square the night of the World Trade Center attack to try to find an
open record shop. It was closed, but Dylan's face – cardboard, of course – pushed up against the window. It wasn't until I got the album the next
afternoon that I realized that the face was capped with a pencil-thin Clark
Gable mustache.

"Dylan, who was Christian before Michael Jackson was white, was a fake who
made fake folk music for fake folk," Nick Tosches wrote in 1995 of Dylan's
early records. Maybe so, but even fake folk music was real Dylan, which is
really what people failed to grasp when he went electric. It's not so much
that Dylan ever changes as an artist – his mission seems the same as it
always has been – but that he is actually an actor. He's always done the
same thing, moreless, he's just changed roles, from the witty folkie of
Greenwich Village to the ultra-hip amphetamine head of "Blonde On Blonde" to
the rambling troubadour of the Rolling Thunder Revue to the Jesus freak of
the late '70s to whatever the fuck he was in the 1980s.

His role, as always, is high status, cool as hell, and dressed in black. In
terms of personality, this particular part is a grizzled workman. When he
played on tours with Paul Simon and Phil Lesh over the past few years, he
effortlessly upstaged the two in terms of sheer bravado. Even Lesh, whose
Grateful Dead interpretations have a kind of timeless quality to them,
couldn't beat Dylan in terms of sheer agelessness. Dylan's patent medicine
show suit and cowboy hat were simply badass. His music, a loose but
razor-sharp country-blues, created a momentary Grand Ol' Opry in the arenas
and amphitheaters of the middle west.

For all of the ballyhoo about Dylan's surrealistic tone poems and all of
that, his lyrics have always been basically rooted in traditional American
music. As such, Dylan lives in traditional America. It's just a matter of
occupying different parts of the landscape. On 1997's "Time Out Of Mind",
Dylan haunted the gorgeously creeping shadows. Daniel Lanois provided a
transcendentally swampy production, dozens of instruments slipping into the
mix and shimmering before losing themselves in the glistening murk.

Dylan's character on "Time Out Of Mind" walked on the side of the road,
hiding behind trees and fenceposts. If he walked in public, he walked
silently, invisibly, ignored by those around him: a low-down untouchable in
the cast-out sense of the word. It was an apt analogue to the figure he
publicly carved in 1997. His previous two discs had been straight-up folk
efforts, the latter of which ("World Gone Wrong") was on-point in its own
way. For the most part, though, Dylan was considered irrelevant.

In the four years since, he's returned to the spotlight, winning Grammy
Awards and high-profile soundtrack spots. Dylan's recorded self now proudly
walks down the center of town, battered suit slightly cleaner, his face more
evenly shaved. "I'm paintin' the town," he sings on Bye and Bye. It's
true. He is.

The songs are filled with the same kind of indirect poetry that filled his
legendarily obscure press conferences of the mid-1960s. In a famous
exchange, someone once asked Dylan what he considered himself. "I think of
myself in terms of a trapeze artist," he replied and left it at that. The
kind of logic expressed on "Love and Theft" is similar, filled with obscure
puns and a complete awareness of the arcane.

"I'm sitting on my watch so I can be on time," he sings somewhere. On one
hand, that's a comical thing to say. On the other hand, there's something
about Dylan's character on this album – the man with the white hat, with the
thin mustache, with the perpetually piercing eyes – that makes sense with
those replies. He's a character who really might slip his pocket watch into
the back of his trousers so it doesn't get stolen in a crowded train car.
Thus, he'll be on time. See, there are reasons for these things.

When the album was announced, Dylan cryptically declared in USA Today that
"all the songs are variations on the 12-bar theme and blues-based melodies.
The music here is an electronic grid, the lyrics being the sub-structure
that holds it all together." Later, he referred to it as a greatest hits
album ("volume one or two") without the hits. Scared the shit out of me. I'm
not a huge blues fan. The songs certainly have the blues them, and there are
a few out-and-out blues numbers, but no more than "Time Out Of Mind".
Really, most of the songs swing loosely like swampy hot jazz.

Dylan's band has been a joy to watch over the past few years, anchored by a
rhythm section of bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper (who kept a
similarly self-described one-foot-on-the-accelerator/one-foot-on-the-brake
beat in the Jerry Garcia Band for many years). Their arrangements of Dylan's
catalogue were always great. With all the live albums Dylan has released
with subpar bands, it's a damn shame he hasn't released one with this combo
yet. At any rate, it's darned great that they finally have their own
material to work with, sculpted around their collective personality.

The songs aren't so much blues or folk as they are a periphery bar band
playing strange pop from the 1930s and 1940s, songs that hover somewhere
between Ary Barroso's Brazil and Clarence Ashley’s The Coo Coo
Bird. It's a marvelously warm fusion that makes its way to the forefront
on songs like the perfect Moonlight. The music absolutely swings:
there's nothing uptight about it, nothing rushed, nothing too hurried. It's
exactly the right speed.

The album's relevance has little to do with the topicality of the lyrics. It
has to do with the internal logic, with the way the album can turn the
outside world into a pantomime. After I found an open record shop, I brought
the package to Union Square to listen to the album on my discman. New York
has been a right strange place for the past few days. People look broken,
hurt, weird.

Putting the album on headphones, blocking out the sirens, blocking out the
arguments, blocking off the cell-phone conversations, blocking out
everything, "Love and Theft" became a perfectly relevant soundtrack to the
behavior of the people walking by me, sitting next to me on other park
benches. People's actions made sense of the songs and the songs made sense
of people's actions. They were surreal lyrics. These are surreal days.

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