Since I took this project on back in April, I’ve restricted myself from listening ahead, even for personal pleasure. (I have, however, allowed myself to go back–lately Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde have made the rotation, plus portions of New Morning and Street Legal.) This album, though, Love and Theft has, since its release in 2001, been my most-listened-to Dylan album. Lately, all through those quasi-evangelical, inconsistent 80’s, I motivated myself to keep going by keeping in mind that the faster I listened, the faster I wrote, the quicker I could get back to Love and Theft. This four-month absence has driven me to crave these tracks like a drunk craves drink.
Is this Dylan’s best album? I don’t think it cracks the top-5, but it’s close. Is this my favorite of his albums? I wouldn’t even say that, as that golden age of the 60s still owns the most incredible output. But this album’s first two songs are two of my favorites: “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” and “Mississippi.” The first throws a depiction of rebel outcasts over a bed of thick, propulsive drums. Like the Grateful Dead’s “Jack Straw,” this tale echoes Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”–two drifters “throwing knives into a tree,” boiling “brains in a pot … / dripping with garlic and olive oil.” In the end, “Tweedly-Dee is a low-down, sorry old man,” Dylan sings, “Tweedly-Dum he’ll stab you where you stand.” Dylan’s rasp is a fitting vessel for this depiction of humanity’s most depraved elements.
“Tweedle-Dee & Tweedle-Dum” always reminds me of Faulkner’s A Light in August, a book I was reading around the time Love and Theft came out. The pairing lends the track a complexity–heightened by Faulkner’s serpentine prose–that lights up my brain waves.
That excitement extends into “Mississippi.” Along with playful guitars and a strong, catchy chorus (“Only thing I did wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long”) the song proceeds as a meditation on time and the inevitability of aging. If Time Out of Mind complicates and forestalls time’s progress, then “Mississippi” resituates us in that progression. “Every step of the way, we walk the line,” the lyrics begin. “Your days are numbered, so are mine.” This number line establishes Dylan as a journeyman musician who has “been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down.” The suggestive images and insights flow in a style reminiscent of “Jokerman,” but this time less prophetic, more earth-bound and humble:
All my powers of expression
My thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice
In reason or rhyme
In these lines, Dylan seems in confession mode: his songsmithing may have fallen short at times through the years. He’s even willing to portray himself as lost and vulnerable, singing, “My clothes are wet, tight on my skin / Not as tight as the corner that I painted myself in.” Despite this most sexualized image of Dylan himself in the oeuvre, he seems utterly fallible here, imminently mortal. The song concludes:
The emptiness is endless
Cold as the clay
You can always come back
But you can’t come back all the way
Only thing I did wrong
Stayed in Mississippi a day too long
The third line here echo a phrase from the third track, “Summer Days,” an upbeat ditty that seems halfway to swing. “She says you can’t repeat the past / I say, ‘What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can.'” Beautiful sentiment here, one that argues for do-overs and redemptions. And if it sounds familiar, that’s because F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote it first, through the voice of Jay Gatsby. Remember though, Dylan has already accused those who point out plagiarism as “wussies,” “pussies,” and “evil motherfuckers.” This isn’t a cribbed line; no, Dylan’s just having a conversation with the past, acknowledging prior times exist.
Much of Love and Theft continues that conversation, pumping out musical forms and lyrical phrases that smack of familiarity. “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time,” Dylan quips in the slow-rolling, 2/4 “Bye and Bye,” a line that he must’ve heard somewhere. In “Lonesome Day Blues,” a standard blues track with point-point-counterpoint lyrics, Dylan twice growls, “Last night the wind was whispering something, I was trying to make out what it was.” Now if you’re trying to make out where you might’ve heard that line, I’ll give you a hint: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. What’s more, you’ll find a nod to Shakespeare in “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” which follows the musings of a hard-up, hard-nosed fisherman. The speaker shares how Romeo tells Juliet her “poor complexion / Doesn’t give your appearance a rather youthful touch.” Juliet just tells Romeo to “shove off if it bothers you so much.” In the universe of this album, Even these beautiful teenage lovers succumb to the inevitable grips of aging.
But these jokes and literary references aren’t the whole of the conversation. A highlight of this album, the delta bluesy, banjo-possessed “High Water” includes “(for Charley Patton)” as its subtitle. So that when Dylan sings “I can write you poems, make a strong man lose his mind / I’m no pig without a wig, I hope you treat me kind,” we could take this as the voice of Dylan, or Patton, or both at once.
Dylan converses with authors, bluesmen, converses (along with his on-point band) with American musical forms. In “Po’ Boy,” Dylan seems to befriend a vaudevillian tramp, while in the croon-heavy “Moonlight,” the driving-rock “Honest with Me,” the jerky-tempoed “Cry a While,” and the end-of-album dirge “Sugar Baby,” he alternately praises, rebukes, condemns, and insults the “you” character at hand. This progression seems harsh on paper, but as usual, Dylan provides us with such depth of emotion, narrative context, and evocative phrases that listeners feel for, if not cheer for, him, and by extension themselves. All the while Dylan’s voice is sure, strong, staying within a tight range and avoiding those wheezing nasally reaches. He accomplishes a master feat of shaping his vocals to the songs at hand.
Do I get this album? It’s a dialogue with time, American music and literature, and Dylan’s own past selves. Do I need the previous albums? As a follow up to Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft certainly continues the comeback. Do I like it? There’s not a track on it I don’t like.