Bob Dylan's last studio album, 1997's Time Out of Mind, was about as much fun as a eulogy. With its songs of remorse and regret, with its plaints of begged-for salvation and yearned-for deliverance, that collection sounded like a last will and testament -- a big adios from the jokerman in pancake makeup. A mere five years ago, Dylan was singing about "comin' to the end of my way," insisting "the end of time has just begun" and "trying to get to heaven before they close the door."
As it so happened, those dirges signaled his resurrection; off with the shroud and on with the grin as he stepped to the stage to gather his Grammys and Golden Globes and Oscars with grateful and graceful aplomb. Time Out of Mind, hailed as The Comeback by those who would dismiss his '80s and '90s output as self-absorbed and closed-off, was a record for the Dylan diehard; it was autobiography as confessional, more or less, a chapter that made little sense if you hadn't read the 41 that preceded it. Yet it played to both the faithful and nonbeliever, who likely found in it that universal truth: You gotta sin to get saved.
And maybe the 60-year-old truly has been reborn and redeemed: Love and Theft finds Dylan looking backward -- toward Sun Records, Ralph Stanley, Charley Patton, Perry Como, Sonny Boy Williamson, the flat landscapes of Texas -- even as he sprints and shuffles onward with fresh air in his wheezing lungs. It's a history lesson scraped free of dust and time's unforgiving residue: The dozen songs bound from rockabilly to Tin Pan pop, from old-timey mountain music to newfangled slide-guitar blues, from jumpin' jive to mournful moans. (Dylan scholars will have a field day deciphering its origins; Dylan fans will have a blast down in its funky, winking grooves.)
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Dylan untangles himself from history's suffocating roots and invents a new language -- that of the postmodern troubadour-crooner-bluesman-lounge lizard (so much for playing the role of spokesman; this year's Dylan looks like a Vegas cowboy, down to the spangles and smirk, and sounds like a hustler). And Love and Theft (which, appropriately enough, shares its title with a 1994 academic treatise about "cross-racial immersion" subtitled "Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class") is the first Dylan disc in decades to play to the back rows, to the unconverted who would write him off as a relic and a self-parody. This is as much an album for them as it is the stalwarts who'd forgive him every Self-Portrait and Shot of Love. If Time Out of Mind was the soundtrack for the forthcoming funeral -- and the first masterpiece since Blood on the Tracks (or Empire Burlesque or Oh Mercy) -- then Love and Theft is the album meant to be put on at the wake. It's where the past and present connect -- imagine, say, if Sam Phillips had discovered the East Texas-born Robert Zimmerman on 42nd Street in 1953 -- and make room for a bright and optimistic future. At long last, it's a new morning, and Dylan's getting up on the right side of the bed for a change.
Love and Theft is also a deceptive record that seems slight on the surface. After the deep introspection of Time Out of Mind and "Things Have Changed" off the Wonder Boys soundtrack, it's positively giddy. (Its most obvious precursor is Dylan's contribution to Peppers and Eggs, the Sopranos soundtrack on which he covered the Dean Martin standard "Return to Me.") Listen only to "Summer Days," which hoots and hollers like some Bob Wills or Louis Jordan discard. "Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing," Dylan sings, his voice steady and heady. "I'm standing on the table and proposing a toast to the King." The band -- Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardist Augie Meyers and Dylan's touring outfit, which includes Austin-based guitarist Charlie Sexton finally getting the chance to play Stevie Ray Vaughan -- lifts Dylan on its shoulder and dances him around the room; drinks are on Bobby D. tonight. Then comes "Bye and Bye," where Dylan sings "love's praises in sugar-coated rhyme" and paints the town by "swingin' my partner 'round"; he's dolled up like a crooner and belting out a happy tune -- Der Bingle out for a swingle.
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Love and Theft contains the sound of a man unhinged and unhindered by legacy; he's cracking jokes ("Honey bees are buzzin' / Leaves begin to stir / I'm in love with my second cousin," he moans beneath the mandolin sunset of "Floater"), cutting loose ("Honest with Me," with its opening line, "Well, I'm stranded in the city that never sleeps / Some of these women, they just give me the creeps," is all slide-guitar sneer) and playing around with genres without bowing to history ("Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" is ambient rockabilly, a gunshot through a pillowcase). He reclaims "Mississippi" from Sheryl Crow, who couldn't make it sound credible, sings a sad song for a "Po' Boy" with the police on his back and closes things out with an accordion-touched lullaby for his "Sugar Baby" (one more Dylan-on-a-journey song, only this time he figures "you can't come back" -- from what, only he knows). You could spend a lifetime tracing Love and Theft's DNA -- Elvis, raised on Harry Smith and Alan Lomax, say -- but who needs to crack the code when the man in the long black coat no longer wears his face like a mask? The smile says enough: Bob Dylan is just happy to be alive.