20 Years Later: Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Western & Bluesy Modern Classic ‘Love and Theft’ LP

The middle entry in a trilogy of albums by which Bob Dylan elevated his public profile to a height it had not reached for over a quarter-century—since The Rolling Thunder Revue of 1975– “Love and Theft” was released on an otherwise momentous day in American history: 9/11/2001. But the LP itself carries its own readily discernible weight of profundity too and one which has grown in significance in the two decades since it came out: the follow-up to the widely-praised return to form that is 1997’s Time Out of Mind, produced by Daniel Lanois, it is the album by which the one-time ‘Voice of a Generation’ took charge of his work in the studio and formulated a template for his recording(s) for years to come. 

Using his touring band as accompaniment (with keyboardist Augie Meyers from the Sir Douglas Quintet as an additional recurring player), Bob also assumed the duties of  producer, albeit under the pseudonym ‘Jack Frost.” This self-sufficient dynamic accounts for structured arrangements that nonetheless allow for the embrace of musicianship for its own sake and simultaneously as means to illuminating the material. In a deserving demonstration of pride in the players he had recruited (including multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell who wields violin, mandolin, and banjo here besides electric guitar), Dylan offered his ensemble opportunities to play for its own sake —hear the lighthearted “Po’ Boy” and the jaunty Western swing of “Summer Days”–as well utilize their astute accompaniment as means to highlight his own personal expression(s).

“Mississippi” is one of those latter communications. An involved multi-stanza narrative boasting an enticing melody and mesmerizing internal rhythm, it is something of a sequel to the stream-of-consciousness that concluded the prior album, “Highlands.” The former composition subsequently compelled a deserved prominence via multiple alternate versions on The Bootleg Series #8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006, but strictly within the context of “Love And Theft,” it best represents Bob’s preferred balance of motion, mood, and methodology. Like the comparably entrancing and intoxicating listen that is the closing cut, “Sugar Baby,” it’s admirable as much for the singing, playing and arrangement as the composition itself.

The Nobel Laureate took a somewhat similar approach, albeit indirectly when recording 1989’s Oh Mercy, his first collaboration with the aforementioned Canadian studio savant (who has worked with U2 and Neil Young). Here, however, he justifiably relies on his enlistment of with engineer Chris Shaw (the first in a series of such designations): this technical expert captures the spontaneity of the hour-long album with an impressive depth and clarity of sound (audio on the SACD version of the record is further testament to the latter’s skill). Such practical virtues (almost) render moot the accusations of plagiarism arising around “Floater (Too Much to Ask),” if only because such charges were more relevant to the next Dylan album, 2006’s Modern Times (and may very well account for the (deliberately) cryptic insertion of quotation marks in this album title).

Even apart from “High Water (For Charley Patton),” his indirect homage to a self-professed listening favorite, Bob Dylan’s devotion to the blues hasn’t been so pronounced since his famous trilogy of mid-Sixties albums. Apart from a similarly structured companion piece with the wry title “Honest With Me,” “Lonesome Day Blues” is the loudest track here, a composite of shuffle and stomp the band navigates flawlessly. Drummer David Kemper, in fact, compels the most attention: this man who sat at the kit with The Jerry Garcia Band for over a decade exhibits the same flair here that he brandished at the very opening of the record with “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” just two instances of more than a few on “Love And Theft” where he almost steals the show from his instrumental compatriots and the frontman himself. 

Amidst the din of those rowdy tracks, and consistently throughout his thirty-first studio album, Bob Dylan reminds how highly idiosyncratic he is as a singer, albeit purposely so. He imbues remarkable nuance into what is admittedly a nasal croak of a voice, stretching out words and phrases, cutting them short or snapping them off, shifting his tone of voice often within a single word. It is a style so unpredictable, he sounds as much like a different man on various songs–compare “Moonlight” and “Cry A While”–as, by all appearances, he looks to be a different person in the photos adorning the cover of this album (the least flattering of which appears on the front).

An absolutely brilliant flash-point of musicianship, material, and production, Love And Theft was regarded as a high point of Bob Dylan’s discography at the time of its release twenty years ago and has ascended to an even more elevated level in the interim. With continuing, healthy hindsight, it will very likely–and deservedly–continue to rise in stature as the future unfolds.

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