September 20, 2001

Still Rocking and Rolling Like a Stone

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It seems sort of strange to think that Bob Dylan is still around and still making music in the new millenium. On seminal albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Blood on the Tracks, Dylan already seemed almost timeless; with his distinctive growling voice and insightful lyrics, he sounded old beyond his years. To consider that this legend is still releasing albums into the 2000 years is just phenomenal.

And unlike other legendary artists like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, who continue touring on the strength of nostalgia while shitting out tame new material every few years, Dylan’s music still feels vital and important 40 years after his first album. But in the 90s, Dylan’s output has been limited to the subpar Under a Red Sky, two great collections of folk covers, a 1995 installment in MTV’s Unplugged series, and 1997’s set of new originals, Time Out of Mind. Time was Dylan’s first new studio recording in seven years, and now four years later he’s followed it with the excellent Love and Theft.

Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s reaction to growing old, a heavy and depressing blues-influenced album which set the old troubadour within an uncomfortably claustrophobic atmosphere. From the first track, the raucous “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” it’s apparent that Love and Theft takes an altogether different approach.

The blues influence is still readily apparent, but what’s been added back into the mix are the driving, uptempo rhythms that characterized much of the master’s best work. It’s also Dylan’s most varied work in quite a while, sacrificing the unified mood of Time, but making up for it with some of his strongest songs since the 70s. “Mississippi” is an instant classic, a slow-burning rocker with typically great romantic lyrics like “I’m gonna look at you ’till my eyes go blind.”

“Honest With Me” is another rocker, this one more upbeat — a good driving song reminiscent of the rowdy barroom sound of 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited. The bluesy stomp of “Lonesome Day Blues” is similarly effective, calling to mind slow, thumping older songs like “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” And like Highway 61, the album closes out with its most quiet and introspective song, the reflective “Sugar Baby.” Although it comes nowhere near matching the lyrical beauty of Highway 61’s sublime “Desolation Row,” the slow but complex guitar on this tune infuses it with a subdued power.

On “Summer Days,” a breezy blues guitar and quick, tumbling drums easily convey the mood of the title. “High Water (for Charley Patton)” is a countrified ramble, with jangly guitars and picked banjo driving beneath the abstract lyrics.

Another pleasant surprise on the album is that Dylan’s sense of humor has apparently returned. While Time Out of Mind barely took a break from its gloomy mood to crack a joke, several tracks here prominently feature Bob’s sharp wit. “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” bounces along on frisky guitar strumming and elegaic violins. It’s rather funny to imagine Bob Dylan skipping happily along a seashore, but that’s somehow exactly the image the track calls to mind. The soulful “Po’ Boy” features old jokes like “called down to room service/ said send up a room.” It’s Dylan’s straight delivery of the jokes that makes them pleasantly unexpected.

Another switch of styles comes with the light ballad “Moonlight,” a perfect candle-lit slow-dance song. Throughout the album’s hour, the variety of styles make the music constantly enthralling. With his lyrics as sharp and deep as ever and his delivery of them instantly putting to rest those rumors about his voice being shot, Bob Dylan has not only crafted one of the best albums of the year, but one that shouuld stand out even in his storied discography.

Archived article by Ed Howard