Time Out of Mind is generally considered to be Bob Dylan’s major comeback statement after a decade of what some might call stale material. “Love and Theft” by contrast is the masterpiece of latter-day Bob Dylan. On its own merits, it’s an album that most artist would kill to make. For Bob Dylan it stands up with his best albums and rightfully earns the title “his best since Blood on the Tracks“.
Dylan rightfully gave Daniel Lanois the boot producing the album himself under the moniker Jack Frost. As a result, “Love and Theft” is Dylan’s wildest, funniest set of songs, since The Basement Tapes. And like the Basement Tapes, “Love and Theft” uses Americana as a blue-print. And like those classic songs, Dylan ends up re-creating Americana (and myths of rural America) in his own image. “Mississippi” is the crown-achievement here (a minor quibble – but it stills bugs me that Sheryl Crow was the first person to introduce this song to the public). It’s the type of song where the more you listen, the more it confuses you and leaves you begging for more. Sometimes Dylan seems sarcastic when he sings “the only thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. Other times it’s seems like a lament. (Though for me the definitive version is the guitar only version found on Tell Tale Signs.)
“High Water (For Charley Patton)” continues a theme about floods that Dylan would also explore on Modern Times. Driven by a banjo, the songs and its lyrics sound like it could be included on The Harry Smith anthology. Again, the song gains more poignancy as natural disasters seems to engulf the midwest with increased frequency. Some of the lyrics are also taken from Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” – but for Dylan its not theft. (Perhaps that might be the reason why the album’s title is in quotes.) He’s aligning himself with his legends – and bringing these legends back to life. There’s no better homage than that. Charley Patton would be proud.
“Love and Theft” also finds Dylan telling jokes and being downright silly – there’s a whole song devoted to a conversation between Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee (though Dylan refers to them as “Tweedlee Dum and Tweedlee Dee”). Elsewhere, he tells corny jokes – “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time” and knock-knock jokes (“Po’Boy”).
“Love and Theft” doesn’t contain any major statements about the world, or ruminations on death. Instead, “Love and Theft” is the album where Bob Dylan truly merges everything that’s ever been on his mind – literature (there’s a reference a Othello), blues, jokes, Americana, and love. It might not be as mind-blowing or influential as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but you could also argue the case that it’s just as good.
Absolutely essential for any music fan.
Song for song, Time Out of Mind should probably be higher on this list. But it’s one of the few Dylan albums where the songs really come to live better in the live arrangements, mostly due to Daniel Lanois’ production. For some reason, Lanois decided that a swamp was a great place for a studio – hiding Dylan’s lyrics in a foggy murk.
I’ve always thought of Time Out of Mind as a sort of sonic version of The Grapes of Wrath, in its set-up. Steinbeck’s masterpiece contains several chapters revolving around turtle in the middle of the Joad’s plight. When I first read this, I wondered what the hell a turtle has to do with the plot. It seems like a throwaway, not pertaining to the plot, but contains many symbols directly related to the story arc. Similarly in Time Out of Mind, the blues ditties of “Million Miles”, and “Dirt Road Blues” and even “Cold Irons Bound” seem out of place with the weighty themes of the rest of the album, but upon further listenings these songs do in fact fit within the theme of the album, and ultimately make it a more rewarding experience.
It’s easy to assume that Time Out of Mind is Dylan’s view on mortality especially since not long after the album’s release he had a near fatal heart condition. Many of these songs do contain references to death and mortality, but visions of end times (whether it be his or the world’s) have always been a part of Dylan’s music.
Time Out of Mind was an important album for Dylan in many ways – it was his most critically acclaimed album in years, but more than that it also found him looking back to the pre rock and roll blues that inspired him, sounds he would explore for his next few albums. In a way, Time Out of Mind is a much freer and looser album than Dylan had produced in years – and the closing track harkens back to his Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde days with “Highlands” – a sprawling 16 minute song. It seems like the band is trying to keep up with Dylan.
Still, Time Out of Mind remains one of the few Dylan albums that I really wish was remastered or cleaned-up.
After the masterpieces of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, it seems inevitable that Dylan’s follow-up would dip slightly in quality. Blood on the Tracks was a naked emotional affair, and Desire was a wild, gypsy sounding outing – the perfect studio counterpart for the Rolling Thunder Revue. And Street Legal? Parts of it sound like a cross between E-Street Band (there’s saxophones) and a Vegas theme-show (the first appearance of the backing singers).
Lyric-wise the album finds Dylan swimming in similar waters as the past two albums – the break-up of his marriage, and his divorce. He’s looking for new women in his life – even if it’s just for one wild ride as suggested in “New Pony”. “New Pony” is among the grittiest songs Dylan has recorded. Its fierce riff and pounding drums perfectly suit the menacing equestrian/sexual theme of the song. Dylan has written many songs about sex, but “New Pony” is probably his most explicit – it almost makes the listener feel dirty.
If there was ever a song that begged for the acoustic Dylan it would be “No Time to Think”. “No Time to Think” is 1970s Dylan in full protest mood with views on mortality. (In a way, it’s a sort of pre-cursor to the Christian albums, which would shortly follow Street Legal). It’s a dense song – lyrics such as ” You glance through the mirror and there’s eyes staring clear At the back of your head as you drink And there’s no time to think” would have hit harder if it weren’t for the big-band production.
Street Legal finds Dylan at a cross roads. Throughout the album, he’s taken the yearning for lost love as far it can go. It’s not surprising that in the year (1978) when punk rock was at its apex, Dylan would go the opposite route and put out an album full of grandiose arrangements and a full-band. Ultimately, Street Legal can be a rewarding album on its own merits, but unlike Dylan’s best albums, the gems aren’t on the surface.