I don't like to think of myself in the highfalutin area," Bob Dylan said a few years ago. "I'm in the burlesque area." The man isn't kidding. Ever since 1969's Nashville Skyline, he's been scandalizing the faithful with fantasies of shedding all his poetic skins to be reborn as a song-and-dance man. On Love and Theft, his forty-third album, he turns this fantasy into a stone-cold Dylan classic. Love and Theft takes us on a full-blown tour of American song in all its burlesque splendor, which includes, of course, Dylan's own psychedelic mutations of the blues. Talk about bringing it all back home: Dylan veers into country, ragtime, vaudeville, deep blues, cocktail-lounge corn, the minstrel show and the kind of rockabilly he must have bashed out with his high school band more than forty years ago. At sixty, Dylan's subject matter is much the same as it has been for the last ten years — the world has gone wrong, the women are doing him wrong — but his tone has shifted. The arrival of the apocalypse, the breaking of his heart — on Love and Theft, these become not lamentations but cosmic jokes.
The music evokes an America of masquerade and striptease, a world of seedy old-time gin palaces, fast cash, poison whiskey, guilty strangers trying not to make eye contact, pickpockets slapping out-of-towners on the back. Love and Theft comes on as a musical autobiography that also sounds like a casual, almost accidental history of the country. Relaxed, magisterial, utterly confident in every musical idiom he touches, Dylan sings all twelve songs in a voice that sounds older than he is, a grizzled con man croaking biblical blues and Tin Pan Alley valentines out of the side of his mouth while keeping one eye on the exit. Just as 1997's Time Out of Mind drew on the doomy menace of Highway 61 Revisited, and "Things Have Changed" turned "The Times They Are A-Changin' " upside down, Love and Theft goes back to the quizzical American passions of classic Dylan albums like John Wesley Harding, The Basement Tapes and Blood on the Tracks. He's rummaging around the past, but all he finds there are deeper riddles, more unsettling mysteries.
Love and Theft climaxes a remarkable decade of work from Dylan — the decade when he hit the road for his Never-Ending Tour and finally ditched the halfhearted attempts at slickness that muffled most of his Eighties studio records. Sometime in the Nineties, Dylan finally blew out his voice — and this was a good thing. Because after those last few creaky floorboards gave way, the man came up with a whole new songwriting style for the voice he was left with, the sinister rusted-muffler growl he introduced on Time Out of Mind. Time Out of Mind shocked the world because it didn't even echo past glories — it was something totally new, yet another other side of Bob Dylan.
You won't find the digital swamp-groove of Time Out of Mind here — on Love and Theft, Dylan puts songs first, returning to the blues stomp of Blonde on Blonde for "Lonesome Day Blues" (on which Dylan growls like a bear cat that hasn't eaten since the Eighties) and the slide guitar of "Highway 61 Revisited" for "Honest With Me." But Love and Theft is in many ways a riskier, looser and more profoundly strange album than Time Out of Mind. It is full of surprises, flamboyant reinventions and sly goofs, as though Dylan had finally earned the right and ability to do whatever he wanted. This includes asides about booty calls, a knock-knock joke and at least one song, "Moonlight," that sounds like it was recorded in a Parisian dance hall in the 1930s. The album title comes from Eric Lott's classic 1993 history of blackface minstrelsy in American culture, a telling reference point for an album that explores some of the twisted roots of rock & roll. Dylan's got a working band to push him these days — Love and Theft shows off the touring musicians with whom Dylan has played nearly 500 gigs since Time Out of Mind. Like his voice, his band is an instrument that Dylan is obviously having a blast learning to play. With guest keyboards from Texas legend Augie Meyers, as well as the twin guitars of Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, Love and Theft celebrates the most fruitful relationship Dylan's had with a band since the Band.
The groove of the band gives the leader room to kick back and play around with his vocals, and one of the hardest things to get used to about Love and Theft is how funny it is. But the crackpot grin you can hear in his vocals only highlights the emotion of electric blues stomps like "Cry a While," the pained ballad "Mississippi," the rockabilly raver "Summer Days," the banjo-and-fiddle lilt of "Floater (Too Much to Ask)." In "High Water (For Charley Patton)," he revisits the ruined landscape of "Down in the Flood" thirty years later; this crash on the levee sweeps up Charles Darwin, Robert Johnson and Big Joe Turner into an acoustic Delta-blues nightmare while Dylan turns to his traveling companion and calmly suggests, "Throw your panties overboard." "Don't reach out for me," the woman in "High Water" says. "Can't you see I'm drowning, too?" Cracked and ruined love affairs abound on Love and Theft, finding a mirror in the cities and countrysides Dylan wanders through. "Your days are numbered/So are mine," he sings in the ravaged love travelogue "Mississippi." "I need something strong to distract my mind/I'm going to look at you till my eyes go blind." None of these heartaches can be put to rest. "You can't repeat the past," another woman says in the jumper "Summer Days," to which Dylan replies, "You can't? What do you mean you can't? Of course you can." In the mournful album closer, "Sugar Baby," Dylan stands with his back to the sun ("because the light is too intense") to sing to a woman who won't open her eyes to his love. "You went years without me," he says. "Might as well keep going now."
But there is not just heartbreak here, there is also a tenacious clinging to love's promise, and the strangest and most seductive surprises on Love and Theft come with the easygoing romantic ballads "Bye and Bye" and "Moonlight." Dylan raised eyebrows a few months ago by covering Dean Martin's "Return to Me" for The Sopranos, and he pays similar tribute to pre-rock pop all over Love and Theft. He connects the dots between folk, blues and the Forties and Fifties schmaltz standards he loved when he was growing up in Hibbing, Minnesota, as a devotee of Johnnie Ray and Nat "King" Cole. He's been playing with these old-timey pop moves for years — think of "If Not for You" or "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" — but his theft has rarely betrayed so much love. In "Po' Boy," he pushes the borscht-belt humor to heroically absurd extremes, jumping over a light acoustic jingle to bite Groucho Marx: "Poor boy in a hotel called the Palace of Gloom/Called down to room service, says, 'Send up a room.' " And that's even before he gets to the knock-knock joke ("Freddy or not, here I come," oy gevalt). It's funny as hell, but it's no parody: Dylan digs into these antique styles and milks them for all the romance and mystery he hears in them. In "Bye and Bye," he wears the mask of the song-and-dance man to sing, "The future for me is already a thing of the past." But the remarkable achievement of Love and Theft is that Dylan makes the past sound as strange, haunted and alluring as the future — and this song-and-dance man sings as though he's drunk too deeply of the past to be either scared or impressed by anybody's future, least of all his own. And he sounds like he's enjoying the ride.
This story is from the September 27th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.