Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 23 November 2015

37. "Love And Theft" (2001)

Well he's certainly perked up, hasn't he?  Where on Time Out Of Mind Dylan seemed mostly preoccupied with death, on "Love And Theft" he is very much alive.  He's shed the weariness of the last few albums and sounds vital and more comfortable in his skin than he has in a long time. This has resulted in a record that's witty, confident, relaxed and for the first time in ages fun.  He and his touring band plus organist Augie Meyers (who played on TOOM) are clearly having a heck of a good time, and their mixture of roadhouse blues, swing, country, folk and jazz is for me one of Bob's most immediately enjoyable albums in years.

The lyrics are his most interesting in years, too.  Less personal (overtly at least), they are full of outcasts, criminals and lunatics, plus characters like Fat Nancy, Black-eyed Susan, Aunt Sally and phony Mr Goldsmith, as well as more recognisable names like Charles Darwin, Big Joe Turner, and figures from Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll.

He kicks off the new millennium with rumbling retro-rocker Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, a nursery rhyme song better than any on Under The Red Sky.  After a fade-in, this comic, sinister tale begins with:
"Tweedle-dee Dum and Tweedle-dee Dee
They're throwing knives into the tree
Two big bags of dead man's bones
Got their noses to the grindstones",

and the grotesque imagery continues with "Brains in the pot beginning to boil, they're dripping with garlic and olive oil".  Guitarists Larry Campbell and Charlie Sexton trade licks easily and naturally, and it's clear that the band's ultra-tight yet laid-back vibe is a consequence of months spent relentlessly touring.  It's a great start, but is immediately upstaged by instant classic Mississippi, an unused song from the TOOM sessions, here re-worked and recorded anew.  This beautiful song sounds like it's always existed, and at the same time, despite it's history, is the freshest, youngest-sounding track on the whole album.  Bob's not fibbing when he sings "Stick with me baby... things should start to get interesting right about now".  It shares the same feeling of disconnect that dominated its intended parent album, thanks to lines like "Your days are numbered and so are mine", "Sky full of fire, pain pourin' down" and "Feeling like a stranger no-one needs".  I love it.

For some reason the "Love And Theft" songs aren't on YouTube, so here it is on Spotify:

Ringing guitar introduces the jump-blues rhythm of Summer Days, and drummer David Kemper sounds as though he's pounding on a dustbin lid - in a good way.  Dylan's attitude is as full-tilt as the music; he's "...drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car", spending all his money and using all his gas - little wonder as he's " eight carburetors and boys, I'm using 'em all"!  The album is a groan-orama of bad puns and worse jokes, and on Summer Days we're told of a politician who's " on his jogging shoes, he must be running for office".

On Bye And Bye Bob is "...sittin' on my watch so I can be on time", accompanied by Hammond organ and a breezy soft-shoe shuffle.  There are a few of these old-fashioned jazzy smoochers on L&T, and they are probably my favourites.  Dylan crams an unbelievable number of words into the lines of Floater (Too Much To Ask), while slide guitar and fiddle swoon together in the background.  The lilting, swaying ballad Moonlight is set to brushed drums and lap steel, and the romantic, lullaby lyrics take a dark turn as Bob creepily croons:

"Well I'm preachin' peace and harmony
The blessings of tranquility
Yet I know when the time is right to strike
I'll take you 'cross the river dear
You've no need to linger here
I know the kind of things you like",

which made me think of my favourite Dylan meme:

Another old-timey ballad suitable for a tea-dance is Po' Boy, whose lyrics are also packed in tight, seemingly without effort.  The melody struck me as extremely familiar, and made me wonder where he pinched it from.

There's plenty of blues on L&T; he snarls and growls his way through Lonesome Day Blues, over Sexton's meaty, menacing guitar riff and Campbell's buzzing interjections.  The verses don't seem to have anything to do with one another, except they all refer to some sort of loss, or something that's missing.  The most poignant phrase, which seems to come out of nowhere and stands out like a sore thumb, is "I wish my mother was still alive".  Beatty Zimmerman had died the year before, aged 84.

It struck me during High Water (For Charley Patton) what a beautifully produced album L&T is, and I was quite surprised to find that it's a 'Jack Frost' production, Dylan's psuedonym.  Here he pays his debt to Patton (also referencing a couple of other bluesmen) with a doom-laden tale and a country-folk backing featuring banjo and mandolin.  There's dirty schoolboy humour too, my favourite line being the saucy "Jump up into the wagon, love, throw your panties overboard!".  His voice is somewhat drowned out by screeching guitars and thunderous percussion on bluesy rocker Honest With Me, and at almost six minutes it's a bit too long.  Misplaced loyalty and betrayal are lamented on Cry A While, which alternates between a chug and a swing.  To my mind it's the least essential song on the record, as by now there have been several similar sounding ones and it adds little.

Final track Sugar Baby has more in common with TOOM than its stablemates on L&T.  There's no percussion, but lots of atmosphere, with the echo of distant slide guitar and a haunting vocal performance, as well as faint hiss and a few barely discernible crackles.  The dirge-like melody, Lanois-style production and helpless lyrics end the album on a bit of a downer, but it showcases Bob's voice for what it has once again become: his finest instrument.  Not only are his tone and phrasing better than ever, the gravel is now authentic, lending further weight to his words.

I read that Dylan had poached words and melodies from all over the place to make "Love And Theft", including the title, which is acknowledged by the quotation marks.  This patchwork of stolen and original language gives the lyrics a jumpy cut-up feel that matches the energy of the music.  Bob continues with his homage to early music, in this case American music of the first half of the 20th century, but it's unmistakably a Dylan record.  It has more shape and colour than TOOM; the instrumentation is more distinct, there's more melody, and the whole thing is wonderfully lighthearted.  It's as though he's finished grieving for his youth and all that disappeared with it, and is now revelling in late middle age.  Elder wisdom is mixed with a youthful puerility; he's plenty to say regarding age, but now there's a wicked grin and two fingers up to the Grim Reaper.

Apart from some songs being a tad too long, and Cry A While perhaps being superfluous, there's really nothing to complain about on "Love And Theft".  I read that Bob was much happier with this album than the last one; perhaps its rootsy, pre-rock'n'roll sound was the one he'd been shooting for on TOOM before Lanois got his box of tricks out.  It doesn't matter whether this is the case or not; TOOM was a fine album in its own right, and after all the "comebacks" and false dawns in Dylan's storied career, to have it followed up with an ever better record was an unlooked-for joy. If he keeps this up, the final stretch of the BobBox is going to be plain sailing*.

*****BobBox price check***** - £108.90 (free postage)
Discogs - from £85.69
Spin CDs - £119.99 (free postage)
Bob Dylan Official Store - £175.99
All prices correct on 23/11/2015

*I expect some readers will know better :)

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