The Good: Decent lyrics, Generally good voice
The Bad: Music is strangely generic
The Basics: Dylan's newer album Love And Theft has wonderful lyrics and voice but a flat-out boring sound that cripples the work.
So, in the last week, I've had something of a crash course in Bob Dylan. My father, who is a huge fan of folk rock music, has a small collection of Bob Dylan's c.d.s and I asked him if I could borrow them because Dylan is one of those artists I've heard a few songs from and I wanted to start listening to some of his full albums. So, I borrowed a bunch of early works (links below!). In addition to the various anthologies and past works, he had a lone album from Dylan's recent works, Love And Theft, which I have now listened to seven times.
With twelve tracks clocking in at 57:27, Love And Theft is an album that might well dispel a number of Bob Dylan myths. Love And Theft deftly illustrates that Bob Dylan can still write and he can sing. This album is a decent collection of bluegrass, folk and rock songs that reminds listeners why they might have fallen in love with the works of Bob Dylan back in the day. As someone who did not fall in love with Dylan at any point in the past, this album simply made me feel that any ribbings the artist takes these days about his mumbling style are out of date.
No, if this album is any indication, any parodies of Bob Dylan that are made now ought to have him as a hayseed. Love And Theft is much more blues and country oriented than his early folk or middle rock years. My disclaimer here at the top then, would have to be that I have nothing against Bob Dylan or his works. I'm not a fan of country or much in the way of blues. That said, Love And Theft is all right and what I like about it is definitely more Dylan-related than blues related.
First, what goes right. Love And Theft has a strong sense of Bob Dylan as a songwriter. Dylan is an amazing poet and he has a level of diction and vocabulary well above the average singer songwriter. On this album, it seems like he has something to say once again. Unlike some of this albums, Love And Theft is pretty unified in its presentation. This is a largely apolitical album containing tracks that are essentially stories about people. So, for example, "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" is essentially a personal history in song form. The narrator simply talks about the members of his family and their struggles in day to day life.
Dylan has a strong sense of form and development with many of the tracks on Love And Theft. For example, on "Mississippi," he sings about feeling confined within a city long before he ever gets to the very simple refrain and that level of drawing out the poetry works masterfully! More than that, he has a wonderful sense of mood in the song with lines like, "All my powers of expression / My thoughts so sublime / Could never do you justice / In reason or rhyme / Only one thing, I did wrong / I stayed in Mississippi way too long" ("Mississippi"). The whole song has a wonderful musing quality to it, as if Dylan truly is contemplating his entire history and his life and setting in just one song.
Throughout the album there are poems with wonderful wording and great rhymes that clearly express a strong sense of humanity. This is an album about relationships, story/songs about wandering through life and bumping into others who are similarly wandering. And they are written with a quality that reminds the listener why Dylan is covered so often. I imagine in the coming years, "Moonlight" will be covered by numerous artists; it has a wonderful sound to it and the lyrics are such that it could be adapted for virtually any musical genre. In this incarnation, it's a mellow track that transforms Dylan into a lounge singer at a smoky club on a night when everyone would rather be inside than out. That is the power of Dylan's lyrics.
And "Moonlight" is a wonderful example of Bob Dylan's amazing singing voice. His voice is velvet on the track and it eases over the listener's ears in a way that is soft and sensual and makes the listener eager for the next notes. Dylan's poetry and voice are flawless on the song and it puts to shame everyone who has ever mocked his vocal presentation and doubted his ability to present his songs in a manner that is musical.
"Moonlight" is not alone. While it might be the vocally superlative track, "Mississippi" has a mournful sound to it defined by Dylan's voice that makes the aching of the lyrics come alive. "Honest With Me" has Dylan competing with percussion and electric guitars and his voice holds his own with clarity. Indeed, there is not a single track on Love And Theft where Dylan sounds is inarticulate, though to be fair, on "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum" he does sound like Tom Waits did on Real Gone (reviewed here!).
The problem with Love And Theft, then, is not in the lyrics or voice; it's the music. I've listened to this album over seven times now and I haven't caught a single tune. Seriously, two days from now if I'm in an elevator and I heard a musak version of any one of these songs I would not associate it with Love And Theft. Not one.
The reason for that, I suspect, is that the songs pretty much all sound like musak already. Okay, that's not true, there are more instruments on many of the tracks than musak has, but there is a similar generic quality to every one of the songs on the album. Song after song, even when I was hearing music in a style that didn't grab me (like bluegrass) I had the distinct impression I had heard the songs before.
There is nothing that stands out musically on this album. The drums are unimaginative, the pianos sound programmed and the guitars present music that could have been played by any artist. There is nothing distinctive about the music on this album, nothing that screams "This is the music of Bob Dylan!" Instead, there is an artificial quality to the sound of the songs on Love And Theft that undermines the whole album. After all, it hardly matters how well Dylan is singing when he is singing to something that sounds like it is a demo tune for Casio keyboards!
In short, the result of listening to Love And Theft is more narcoleptic than satisfying. Yes, I became bored listening to this album, despite the quality of the lyrics. The music drowns the sensation on almost every track (the generic quality works fine to evoke the mood on "Moonlight") and it left me ready to sleep, not ready to write or pick up another Bob Dylan disc.
The result is a very weak "recommend" on this album. It's good and with lowered expectations, it's a fine and enjoyable listening experience. But with high hopes and standards for what Bob Dylan music ought to be . . . Love And Theft is liable to disappoint.
"Mississippi" is the superlative track and it's too bad it follows the truly terrible opening "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum."
For other Bob Dylan reviews, be sure to check out my takes on:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Early Album Boxed Set
No Direction Home
For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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