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.
Both Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft” found Bob Dylan looking to the American musical past in a way that he hadn’t in years. Time Out of Mind was mostly blues-based, and “Love and Theft” covered blues and Americana. Modern Times covers that seem territory, but also includes swing and jazz influences. This era must have been on Dylan’s mind. The album covers includes a fuzzy version picture of a 1930s car surrounded by city lights, and the album title alludes to Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times.
And like its two predecessors, Modern Times finds Dylan in familiar territory, but he’s not coasting. “Thunder on the Mountain” moves along with a rockabilly bounce as Dylan tells the listener that Alicia Keys has been on his mind. “When the Deal Goes Down” might be Dylan at his jazziest. It’s a sound that could easily turn into something cheesy in the hands of some-one like Rod Stewart, but Dylan gets inside the song and uses a business exchange, or card game depending on your view, as a metaphor for death. “I owe my heart to you, and that’s saying it true,” He croons. “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”
And in case you think that Dylan has forgotten the social issues of his youth he’s laments the state of the working man in “Working Man Blues #2”. It’s the type of song that one can imagine that men would sing on trains during the Depression as they made their way from town to town in search of work. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is based on the blues standard “When the Levee Breaks” made famous by Led Zeppelin. While Zeppelin’s version was furious, Dylan’s version is more sorrowful, and gains more resonance since the song was recorded less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. It’s hard not to picture the devastation of New Orleans when Dylan observes, “some people on the road carrying everything they own”.
Like many classic Dylan albums, Modern Times ends with an epic that only Dylan could conceive. “Ain’t Talkin” one of the darkest and spookiest songs Dylan has recorded. Over a sparse guitar Dylan walks through “the mystic garden” and admits that he’ll “burn that bridge before you can cross”. “Ain’t Talkin” comes off as an updated version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” where the narrator wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world. In that song, Dylan seems shocked by what he sees. In “Ain’t Talkin” though, Dylan isn’t shocked, but just bitter. He says that he’s still yearning, but then he wants you out of his miserable brain.
Ultimately, Modern Times uses the past to shine light on contemporary subjects. In it’s own way, it’s Dylan’s most political album (without being explicitly political) since the protest days. It’s not as direct, and he’s still got a lot on his mind – we just have to listen.
Together Through Life ranks as one of Dylan’s most fun albums. Gone are the dark observations of Modern Times, and the travelogues of Americana on “Love an Theft”. There are no major statements, it’s just the sound of Dylan and his band tearing through pre-rock and roll blues like only they can do.
Together Through Life is only the second time that Dylan has co-written songs with a collaborator – in this case Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. As such, Dylan seems a little livelier on this album than he has in the past few records. He’s clearly having fun – there’s audible laughs throughout and a cry of, “woo!” near the end of ‘It’s All Good'”. It’s an album where Dylan seems comfortable being Bob Dylan an old man. There’s no ruminations on mortality or a world gone wrong. Instead, Together Through Life is an album almost solely devoted to one of Dylan’s other favorite past-times: women.
Throughout the album he’s scornful (“Forgetful Heart”), hilarious (“My Wife’s Hometown”), and even lustful (“Shake Shake Mama” – which at least musically is one of his best rockers in years). The music on Together Through Life is given a kick by the addition of an accordion, which dominates many of the songs. “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” comes off as something as a straight forward blues number with a Hispanic twinge. While bluesy stomp of “My Wife’s Hometown” borrows its music from Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You”, Dylan’s version just wants to tell you “that hell’s [his] wife’s hometown”.
The closest that Dylan gets to a major statement on the album is the sarcastic closer, “It’s All Good”. Even from the beginning Dylan has always found a way to take cliched phrases and turn them on their head, and hasn’t done it this good since the 1960s. Dylan sees a world with politicians telling lies, wives leaving their husbands, and buildings. Where the young Dylan might have offered a solution (or at least made us think we could change the world), the Dylan at almost 70 sarcastically declares, “You know what they say man. It’s all good.”