“Love and Theft”

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Bob_Dylan_-_Love_and_Theft

Holidays and travel have conspired to stop me from turning the clock to 2002 on my Dylan year, since I’ve needed to find the chance to write about the 2001 album “Love and Theft” (please note: the quotation marks are part of the title, although it seems like less than half of the reviews of it seem to care). This was Dylan’s first new album in a month (four years in real time), and it was another well-received work. It peaked at number five on the charts despite the fact that it generated no singles.

“Love and Theft” has been a really tough album for me to get my head around. I only listened to two albums this past week: “Love and Theft” and a bootleg of 2001 live performances of all the songs from the same album. Dylan rotated virtually the entire album into his live sets very quickly after the album was released, although he didn’t vary them from the album cuts nearly as much as he has done with some of his other recent music.

“Love and Theft” was released on September 11, 2001, and so it was received into a deeply unsettled world. With so much going on culturally and politically, it is almost surprising that the album wasn’t completely overlooked and forgotten. I think that this is one where the critical consensus rolled out gradually over some time. It isn’t an album that I immediately grasped this week. I don’t think that I had ever listened to it before this past week (perhaps once) and my first impressions varied a great deal from my final impressions.

Initially, I listened to this as a sort of pre-Dylan Dylan album. “Love and Theft” is filled with simple blues riffs, and jazz numbers that would have sounded plausible on the radio in the years before Dylan’s birth (though many of the lyrics would not have). A lot of the songs like pre-folk music, as if Dylan is excavating the sounds that filled the airwaves before he and his cohort arrived. Some of those songs still sound like that to me. Initially I was quite excited by the jazzier numbers, but as the week wore on I found myself preferring some of the more traditionally Dylan-y songs better. I do like the album as a collection of songs – I’m not really sure that there are songs here that I dislike – though I find it sort of hard to listen to as an album, if by album you mean some sort of consistent statement or tone. It lacks that – it is all over the map in a lot of ways. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The live versions play a little bit more consistent because some of the elements that make songs unique on the album (the banjo on “High Water”, for instance) disappear in the live versions, making the songs seem a little more consistent.

This is one of those albums where it is probably best to go song by song:

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”. I had low hopes for this one just based on the title, but I quite like it. On the album this song is all about the fills – the jarring sharp guitar bits at the end of each line – which I love. The lyrics are dark and somewhat hopeless, filled with references to New Orleans. Lyrically I’m not sure that it amounts to all that much, but the production here is really strong. It’s a good song to lead things off.

“Mississippi”. By far my favourite song on the whole album as of this writing. This is an odd one. I knew this song primarily because The Dixie Chicks covered it on their live album. I didn’t realize that it was a Dylan song that they were covering, and I became very used to that version (which actually owes a lot to the Sheryl Crow version). Dylan does the song at about half the speed of The Dixie Chicks. When I first started listening to it I couldn’t get the Chicks version out of my mind. Today, I listened to their version and couldn’t get the Dylan version out of my mind – he has sort of completely swept them aside for me. That was an interesting accomplishment. Anyway, this is a really great song. Here’s the Chicks version:

“Summer Days”. This is the first song that gives the album a really retro feel. This is a pretty straight rockabilly song. Musically it is pretty predictable and lyrically it doesn’t do much. This sounds like it could have been recorded by any of a hundred retro rockabilly rockers over the years (I mean, the Stray Cats could have recorded this). This song has my favourite lines on the whole album:

She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean,
you can’t? Of course you can.”
It’s the tripled use of “can’t” that makes that so bizarre.

“Bye and Bye”. This one is even more retro. Bing Crosby could have recorded this, or Frank Sinatra. Certainly would have sounded different, since Dylan’s voice croaks a few times here, and Crosby and Sinatra didn’t sing songs that were this dark. This is a light-toned, velvety song with this as the final verse:

Papa gone mad, mamma, she’s feeling sad
I’m gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I’m gonna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be

This is one of the most unusual songs that Dylan had recorded on one of his own albums at this point, what with the jazzy organ and drumming. If you don’t pay any attention to it, it sounds like nothing. If you listen to the words, it sounds like he’s losing his mind. He didn’t play this live for the first time until October 2002.

“Lonesome Day Blues”. This is retro in a totally different way – a straight blues song. At first I had almost no interest in this one. The repetitive, predictable blues riffs sounded like anyone could have written them. Then, once again, the lyrics start to sneak up on you and you start to ask: “What the hell is this guy doing?”

Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months
Samantha Brown lived in my house for about four or five months
Don’t know how it looked to other people
I never slept with her even once

All of these songs that sound like they could have been played in the 20s wind up having odd sorts of twists.

“Floater (Too Much to Ask)”. This sounds akin to “Bye and Bye”. Another one that Crosby or Sinatra might have crooned. Same drumming, same tempo, this time abetted by some fiddling and some organ. This one has the best lyrics of any song on the whole album:

My grandfather was a duck trapper
He could do it with just dragnets and ropes
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth
I don’t know if they had any dreams or hopesAt the same time, this is the one that opened the whole plagiarism can of worms.

Let’s stop for a second. There are two lines in this song that Dylan is accused of lifting from Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza: “I”m not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound” is comparable to Saga’s “I’m not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded” and “My old man, he’s like some feudal lord” is akin “My ole man would sit there like a feudal lord”. I am going to come back to these accusations particularly around the discussion of Chronicles because there is an awful lot to say here. Long version short: the album is called “Love and Theft”. The album uses quotation marks in its title. I think Dylan knows exactly what he is doing.

“High Water (For Charley Patton)”. On my first listen this was the song that I liked the best, and it is still up there near the top, not the least because of the banjo playing. This isn’t the first Dylan song with banjo, but it is the first where the banjo is the most prominent instrument and where it sounds like a banjo song (Larry Campbell, one of Dylan’s touring guitarists, plays the banjo here). I don’t know, there’s nothing on this song that I don’t like – it’s one of my favourite things from him in a long time. Lyrics (“They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five”), music, vocal performance, the whole thing is flawless as far as I’m concerned. The high point of the album as far as I’m concerned. By the way: Why is Dylan not accused of plagiarizing the line “The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she warbles as she flies”? It’s a standard folk song line.

“Moonlight”. This is almost the same as “Bye and Bye”, slow, meandering light jazz. “Bye and Bye”, “Floater” and “Moonlight” could all be the basis for an entirely different album entirely.

“Honest With Me”. A total whiplash change of pace from the previous song. Uptempo, with trademark inscrutable imagery in the lyrics. This is my least favourite song on the album, although I don’t mind the live version of it. I don’t like the guitar fills that they use on the album version, but those are toned down live. This is a pretty straight forward Dylan rocker.

“Po’ Boy”. This one, however, I just love. It is much better on the album than it is in any live version that I have heard yet. The minimal instrumentation and the foregrounding of Dylan’s sort of failing voice – he sounds like he’s barely hanging on to this one, he can’t get up there to hit that note on “Po’” and his voice cracks almost every time. Love the guitar here, love the lyrics:

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?”
She says, “I gave it to you, you drank it”
Poor boy, layin’ ’em straight—pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate

I would have made this the final song on the album if it had been me.

“Cry a While”. This is a fairly familiar one. It starts as a simple blues song, then picks up the tempo, then slows down again. Angry Dylan with a bitter anti-love song. We know the all too well, but he’s done this genre a lot better than this.

“Sugar Baby”. Of course this is also a great final song for this album. I guess maybe this should go last, but maybe they could have lost “Cry a While” because this following “Po’ Boy” would have been quite the gut punch. A little bit of guitar, some organ, and Dylan’s once again failing voice. The whole thing comes down to the pacing and the phrasing of the chorus. The verses are long, slow, dirge-like and then he rushes through the short, staccato lines of the chorus. It’s a beautiful contrast. Here’s how he ends the whole album:

Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one

You got a way of tearing the world apart. Love, see what you done

Just as sure as we’re living, just as sure as you’re born

Look up, look up—seek your Maker—’fore Gabriel blows his horn
Sugar Baby, get on down the line

You ain’t got no sense, no how

You went years without me

Might as well keep going now
I have to think that with every album Dylan has made in the past fifteen years there has been the looming possibility that this could be the final one, and that if it were, this would be the final thing he’d say to us. This might’ve been a fitting end.

So. Really strong album. In some ways it sounds like it has about three albums in it – a crooning album; a blues album; an album of new Dylan material that stretches from the past couple of albums. Ultimately it is that last one that I personally prefer: “Mississippi”, “High Water”, “Po’ Boy” and “Sugar Baby” are the surefire keepers for me. Most of the rest is interesting, but those four are fantastic.

Here’s Sheryl Crow also doing “Mississippi”. She tells a little Dylan anecdote to start, and talks about real estate:

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