Friday, October 1, 2010

Bob Dylan: "Love And Theft"

Love And Theft,” Bob Dylan’s 31st studio album, was released on September 11, 2001. Dylan reportedly took the album’s title from Eric Lott’s book Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, hence the album title in quotation marks. Depending on my mood, sometimes this is my favorite Dylan album. Other times, it could be Blood on the Tracks [1975] or Oh Mercy [1989], or even Highway 61 Revisited [1965]. But most times, if I want to hear Dylan I reach for “Love And Theft.” His previous album, Time Out of Mind, won the Grammy® for Album of the Year. It was heralded as his return to form after years of sub-par albums [like Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove, and Empire Burlesque]. Time Out of Mind was produced by Dylan and Daniel Lanois, the Canadian producer and musician who has turned out many great works with U2 [The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby], Peter Gabriel [So, Us], Willie Nelson [Teatro], and Emmylou Harris [Wrecking Ball]. The two men also worked together on the aforementioned Oh Mercy. Lanois’ productions [at least the works of which I own a copy] have been described as ‘ambient,’ ‘atmospheric,’ ‘wrapped in gauze,’ ‘smoky,’ ‘spooky,’ containing lots of echo and reverb. One might think I write this because I think it’s a bad thing – it isn’t. For productions like Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, this style works, but it’s more of a Daniel Lanois trademark than what one would associate with Bob Dylan.

In retrospect Things Have Changed, the song that won Dylan an Academy Award® for Best Original Song for a motion picture, provided a hint of the direction Dylan was going to take after Time Out of Mind. On Things Have Changed and later “Love And Theft” Dylan took over the production duties himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost. Gone are the ambience and atmospherics of the Lanois productions. With “Love And Theft” we get Dylan without any frills. He took his road band into the studio this time. These guys [including Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton on guitar, Tony Garnier on bass, David Kemper on drums] had been touring with Dylan on his “Never Ending Tour” for years, so they instinctively knew what he wanted. What he got was a combination of jazz [Po’ Boy], swing [Summer Days], hard roadhouse blues [Lonesome Day Blues], country [High Water (for Charley Patton)], rockabilly [Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum], ballads [Sugar Baby] and some of the hardest rock one has heard from Dylan in a long time [Honest With Me]. With all of these quintessentially American forms thrown into the mix, critics would label this music Americana. It’s not the first time critics have used this word [music from The Band comes to mind], but since critics need a label for whatever they review, Americana was the only one that fit for them.

Not only is the band playing well on “Love And Theft,” Dylan’s voice changed. He no longer sings in a nasally whine. He sings in lower registers these days. Imagine if one gargles with broken glass and gasoline and smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and you get the idea of his now-gravelly rasp. Such is the product of years of non-stop touring. As he would later sing on Together Through Life [2009], “it’s all good.” My favorites are High Water (for Charley Patton), Lonesome Day Blues, Honest With Me, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, and Cry a While. I won’t analyze Dylan’s lyrics – there are smarter people than me who can do that particular thing a whole lot better, so I will let them. I think the thing that I like besides the musicianship is Dylan’s words on “Love And Theft” – some are pretty damn funny, others are fairly pointed.  Given Dylan's gift with words, I never would have imagined he would write something as low-brow as "Don Pasqualli makin’ a two A.M. booty call."  Women don't come off very well in these tunes.  In Cry a While he lists all the deeds he's done for a certain girl only to be treated with only a smile.  It's almost as if it's an update for Don't Think Twice [It's All Right].

Well, you bet on a horse and it ran on the wrong way
I always said you’d be sorry and today could be the day
I might need a good lawyer, could be your funeral, my trial
Well, I cried for you, now it’s your turn, you can cry awhile

The refrain from Sugar Baby could easily have come from the put-downs in Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat and Like a Rolling Stone.

Sugar Baby get on down the line
You ain’t got no brains, no how
You went years without me
You might as well keep going now

Love And Theft” has all that one could ask for in a Bob Dylan album – music played well by a superb band, vocals that are listenable, lyrics that are sharp and smart, and sometimes funny. Dylan hasn't rocked out this much since Highway 61 Revisited.  He's got a great band, and like a smart producer he lets them play.  Since Dylan took over production of his own albums he’s been on a winning streak. After “Love And Theft” he’s put out two more albums of new material, Modern Times [2006] and Together Through Life [2009]. He’s also put out four more albums in his bootleg series, the latest of which is Volume 8: Tell Tale Signs

No comments:

Post a Comment