With Love and Theft, Bob Dylan’s return to the land of the living is complete. By the mid-’90s, his concerts had, for all but the faithful, degenerated into sullen, static affairs; even when he tried to avoid malaise his usual way — by rearranging his classics — Dylan seemed bored. Then came his 1997 health scare, the result of a heart condition. His performances after that incident (like the one I saw in New York City in 1998) were genuinely startling, even for him: At various points, a clearly animated Dylan danced a little jig, smiled, and in general seemed thrilled to be both on stage and alive. The next two studio recordings we heard from him — the Oscar-winning ”Things Have Changed,” from last year’s ”Wonder Boys” soundtrack, and his fetchingly cornball cover of ”Return to Me” from the second ”Sopranos” compilation — were equally full of spark. Hell, even his Oscar speech was articulate; we didn’t need a translator for the Dylan-impaired, to recall a brilliant ”SNL” skit.
”Time Out of Mind,” Dylan’s pre-hospitalization recording, was a moody, ghostly work — a litany of personal torment sung in an unsettling cryptkeeper voice. That voice still sounds gnarled on ”Love and Theft,” but Dylan’s delivery and music are looser and friskier, at once more lighthearted and more aggressive. It may not be a better album than ”Time Out of Mind,” but it glides from genre to genre with a sprightly glee, as if Dylan were traversing the American musical landscape in search of thrills, revenge, and reparation.
On the most striking tracks, he’s a weathered, boastful bluesman, a rock version of later-period Muddy Waters. On ”Summer Days” (which owes a debt to ”Shake, Rattle & Roll”) and ”Lonesome Day Blues,” the musicians (his touring band) spew out serrated roadhouse blues behind lyrics like ”You’re gonna need my help, sweetheart/You can’t make love all by yourself” that manage to be taunting and jaunty at the same time. With its four-to-the-floor rumble and whistling slide guitar, the ambivalent love song ”Honest With Me” consciously evokes ”Highway 61 Revisited”; the hillbilly love serenade ”Floater (Too Much to Ask)” is set to graceful Western swing. These songs crackle with energy — kudos to slam-banging drummer David Kemper. ”High-Water (For Charley Patton)” is a doomsday warning set to backwater bluegrass banjo and guitar, with Dylan coming off as a fanatic preacher warning us of the pending flood. (Adding to the roots ambiance is the way he drops in snippets of borrowed folk and blues lyrics.) It would be nice to think that the freewheeling, surrealistic ”Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum” is a metaphor for the last presidential election. Whatever the inspiration, Dylan’s guttural intonation makes it a deliciously depraved reworking of a children’s lit image.
In the main, these songs aren’t anywhere as personal as the ones on ”Time Out of Mind.” Instead, Dylan adopts the roles of ornery characters — backwoodsmen who marry their cousins, millworkers embittered by love. They’re grizzled weirdos, and Dylan’s voice is, for once, the right instrument at the right time. His scratchy, cigarette-scarred bark makes his early recordings sound like those of a budding opera star, but it’s perfect for capturing the mood of the people in his songs. It even has unexpected nuances, like hints of sly humor and melodious turns of phrase. Close your eyes during the road-love-affair narrative of ”Mississippi” and you’d almost think you were hearing a phlegmy outtake from his country-gentleman ”Nashville Skyline” period.
When Dylan has attempted such a similar stylistic jumble in the past — think of 1970’s self-parodying ”Self Portrait” or 1988’s grooveless ”Down in the Groove” — he’s stumbled badly. ”Love and Theft” doesn’t hit any of their lows, although it comes close. ”Bye and Bye” and ”Moonlight” dip into a different and less appealing type of American music — the swoony, glucose-dipped lounge ballad — and Dylan’s strangulated croon makes him sound like a smitten troll. Those songs and the cutesy, folkish ”Po’ Boy” are toss-offs in the great Dylan tradition. But at least he ends the album on a grace note: ”Sugar Baby” is all courtly chords and lovely melody, Dylan lamenting a heartbreaker and investing simple sentiments like ”Some of these memories you can learn to live with/And some of ’em you can’t” into profound commentaries.
Here’s another chilling profundity: Dylan’s peak, his revolutionary period, was decades ago. But the remarkable thing about ”Love and Theft” is that for the first time in a while, he doesn’t seem to know it. He’s just a man who’s returned to work after learning to appreciate the art of breathing, and he’s attacking his job with renewed vigor.