Time Out of Mind is generally considered to be Bob Dylan’s major comeback statement after a decade of what some might call stale material. “Love and Theft” by contrast is the masterpiece of latter-day Bob Dylan. On its own merits, it’s an album that most artist would kill to make. For Bob Dylan it stands up with his best albums and rightfully earns the title “his best since Blood on the Tracks“.
Dylan rightfully gave Daniel Lanois the boot producing the album himself under the moniker Jack Frost. As a result, “Love and Theft” is Dylan’s wildest, funniest set of songs, since The Basement Tapes. And like the Basement Tapes, “Love and Theft” uses Americana as a blue-print. And like those classic songs, Dylan ends up re-creating Americana (and myths of rural America) in his own image. “Mississippi” is the crown-achievement here (a minor quibble – but it stills bugs me that Sheryl Crow was the first person to introduce this song to the public). It’s the type of song where the more you listen, the more it confuses you and leaves you begging for more. Sometimes Dylan seems sarcastic when he sings “the only thing I did wrong, stayed in Mississippi a day too long”. Other times it’s seems like a lament. (Though for me the definitive version is the guitar only version found on Tell Tale Signs.)
“High Water (For Charley Patton)” continues a theme about floods that Dylan would also explore on Modern Times. Driven by a banjo, the songs and its lyrics sound like it could be included on The Harry Smith anthology. Again, the song gains more poignancy as natural disasters seems to engulf the midwest with increased frequency. Some of the lyrics are also taken from Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” – but for Dylan its not theft. (Perhaps that might be the reason why the album’s title is in quotes.) He’s aligning himself with his legends – and bringing these legends back to life. There’s no better homage than that. Charley Patton would be proud.
“Love and Theft” also finds Dylan telling jokes and being downright silly – there’s a whole song devoted to a conversation between Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee (though Dylan refers to them as “Tweedlee Dum and Tweedlee Dee”). Elsewhere, he tells corny jokes – “I’m sitting on my watch so I can be on time” and knock-knock jokes (“Po’Boy”).
“Love and Theft” doesn’t contain any major statements about the world, or ruminations on death. Instead, “Love and Theft” is the album where Bob Dylan truly merges everything that’s ever been on his mind – literature (there’s a reference a Othello), blues, jokes, Americana, and love. It might not be as mind-blowing or influential as Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, but you could also argue the case that it’s just as good.
Absolutely essential for any music fan.