King Dylan reigns on instant masterpiece

Tim Paluch

Bob Dylan has been one busy 60-year-old. Rightfully known as blues rock’s wily and crafty ol’ veteran, Dylan has played over 450 live shows since the release of 1997’s Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind,” a benchmark in his career rebirth.

“Time Out of Mind” was something entirely new for Dylan – a dark, deeply introspective look at mortality and the inevitability of human predicament. The songs were sharply produced, with Dylan adding moody electronics to further enhance the album’s murky temper.

On “Love and Theft,” Dylan’s 43rd album, he returns to his roots. The man famous for being tangled up in the blues now finds himself completely immersed in them. “Love and Theft” is nothing less than a 57 minute, 32 second-long American music lesson. Our professor, the Dylan of old, the “Blood on the Tracks” and “John Wesley Harding” Dylan, takes the listener on a masterful ride through it all – folk, country rock, deep Southern blues, street-corner rockabilly and pre-rock pop.

Dylan delivers a no-gimmick, bare-bones sounding album, one that took only two weeks to record, giving it that rough live- band sound from the past, something noticeably absent on “Time Out of Mind.”

“Love and Theft” is wise and profound, both musically and lyrically, and the songs are full of ironic humor and witty tales of romance, mischief and mystery. It’s as good as anything Dylan released in his `60s heyday, while he still held the position as rock’s cynical political spokesperson for an entire generation.

Along with maybe Johnny Cash, Dylan remains the best at using song to tell stories of the innate struggles of human existence, dissecting everyday personal battles to create meaningful, intricate tales of loathing and self-demise. “Love and Theft” reinforces this skill as good as any Dylan album.

“I think of it as a greatest hits album, Volume One or Volume Two – without the hits. Not yet anyway,” Dylan said when asked about “Love and Theft.” That statement is not unlike the kind of sly jokes that appear throughout the album, whether he’s calling room service to “send up a room” in “Po’ Boy” or telling of a conversation between lovers in “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” – “Romeo, he said to Juliet/You got a full complexion/It doesn’t give your appearance a very youthful touch/Juliet said back to Romeo/Why don’t you just shove off/If it bothers you so much.”

“Love and Theft” starts off with the story of “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” a country blues romp that tells the tale of two good-for-nothings waltzing through life. From there, the album weaves in and out through American blues in all its forms.

“Mississippi,” which Sheryl Crow recorded for 1998’s “The Globe Sessions,” is a gloomy folk ballad in which a pained Dylan proclaims, “Been in Mississippi a little too long.”

There’s signature Dylan traditional blues rock, with tracks like “Summer Days” and “High Water,” as well as the picturesque ballads (“Moonlight,” “Bye and Bye”) we’ve come to expect from his albums.

The album ends with the seven-minute long “Sugar Baby,” an enduring tale where Dylan wails with emotion only found in the blues – “I’ve got my back to the sun/ because the light is too intense/ I can’t see what everybody in the world is up against.”

Make no mistake, “Love and Theft” is a rock `n’ roll album, but more Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley than the Stones. It takes you back to the dirty days of an old-time touring blues musician, and here Dylan is that guy performing at a different poorly-lit club night after night. You can just picture him playing outside the pawn shop or under an overpass, guitar case open, half a buck or so of change inside.

He’s that fella you see when you peek over the newspaper you’re reading on the bus, legs crossed, strumming his guitar, a few passengers tapping their feet along to the music – some aware they’re doing it, some not.

He’s so raw with passion on “Love and Theft” it makes you believe life is rough for this wandering bluesman; maybe he’s sleeping under a different roof every night, or perhaps panhandling or swindling a tourist here and there for a couple extra bucks during the day. But the music he’s playing is good, and he knows it’s good. So he’s loving every minute of it.