Bob Dylan,
Love & Theft
(Sony, 2001)

Every Bob Dylan album, from his 1961 folk debut to this recent outing, has had a flavor all its own. Like Neil Young, Dylan moves from one genre to another over the course of just two albums -- from the explosive, blues/rock of Blonde on Blonde to the folky, serene John Wesley Harding, for instance, or from the spare and bitter folk classic, Blood on the Tracks, to the folk-pop extravaganza, Desire, released the very next year. Among the many trademarks that have become associated with Dylan over the years stands his knack for effacing past efforts with new, surprising experiments. Dylan's musical glance is always peering forward. Perhaps that is the quality of legends.

The poignantly titled Love & Theft is no stranger to that kind of resourcefulness. Yet, it is perhaps Dylan's most distinctive effort ever, as not only does the entire album command a sound all its own, but so does each song. The only track here that might remind one of the brilliant blues fest that was Time Out of Mind is "Summer Days," whose rollicking, '50s flavor is reminiscent of "Dirtroad Blues" or, for that matter, "Tombstone Blues" or "5 Believers." But while Dylan returns to his folk, blues and rock routes throughout the album, he also delves yet again into newer territory, and exerts a very confident hand upon the pastiche of styles that unfolds over the course of these 12 new songs.

Though Tom Waits's shadow lurks in the eerie and thunderous opener, Dylan then slips comfortably into the gorgeous, folk ballad, "Mississippi." And while the lyrics throughout the album are usually melancholic, the music itself has been stripped of the gloom that pervades most Dylan efforts. Rather than sounding incongruous, the blending of loose musical arrangements with downtrodden lyrics produces a splendidly affective pathos. This is particularly evident on the wondrous "Sugar Baby" and the beautifully blue "Mississippi." Tunes such as "Floater" or "Bye and Bye," a jazzy (yes, jazzy) waltz, would sound just right at the shampoo aisle of your local grocer. However, when Dylan's blade-sharp wit chimes in, as he marks his astonishment "that I've still got a dream that hasn't been repossessed," the song comes alive. This is the virtue of any artist with the lyrical prowess of a Bob Dylan, that they can invigorate the blandest melody with the wild flames of language.

Love & Theft has been billed as an album "for the masses." Well, it is still Bob Dylan, still that voice that would make for a great anti-tobacco ad, but if this album really does have the capacity to contain multitudes, it is due to its stunning potpourri of styles and lyrical mastery. Love & Theft confirms that Dylan's recent return to form and glory was no false dawn.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 15 February 2003

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