Love and Theft, Bob Dylan's first album of new studio recordings in four years, is a work of real substance, brimming with honesty, humor and beauty. Dylan produced the album himself (as "Jack Frost") and recorded with his touring band, a group of crack musicians with impeccable feeling for nuance and mood. Together, they effortlessly traverse numerous American musical genres, from old-timey pop to hard blues to rockabilly. The music here is always soulful and authentic, both complementing and complimenting the words Dylan sings and the sentiments he expresses.
The album opens with "Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee," a shuffling, percussive number about two rambling jokers. As in many of the album's songs, there's no particular plot; rather, this one combines surreal imagery and evocative vignettes comparisons to some of the material on The Basement Tapes are well founded. Only in the last verse does Dylan indicate that, perhaps, these two aren't so funny: "Tweedle Dee is a low down sorry old man," he sings. "Tweedle Dum he'll stab you where you stand." A flowing country ballad called "Mississippi" follows; it's the latest in the long line of rustic Dylan travel songs and is perhaps the most classically "Dylan" track on the album. The upbeat blues "Summer Days" spotlights Dylan's superbly cracked voice.
Along with several other tracks, "Moonlight" sounds like a pre-war standard, finding Dylan crooning with remarkable charm. The bluesy "Honest With Me" manages to sound lighthearted and bleak at the same time. The cutesy "Po' Boy" floats a light, pretty melody and makes a corny joke about room service ("send up a room"). On the country-blues "High Water (For Charley Patton)," Dylan weaves a mythical tale of impending doom, set in Clarksdale and Vicksburg and starring such characters as Charles Darwin and Fat Nancy. Dylan has always been skilled at creating a sense of foreboding in his songs, but here he sounds less resigned to his misfortunes than awestruck by them.
Love and Theft ends with its most earnest and significant song, "Sugar Baby." For the finale, Dylan sheds his various personae and delivers a statement both personal and universal. He soberly declares, "Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick/ Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick." But to Dylan's credit, he refuses to end the album on a glum note. Instead, with the final lines, heaven comes crashing down: "Your charms have broken many a heart, and mine is surely one/ You've got a way of tearing the world apart, love see what you've done/ Just as sure as we're living, just as sure as you're born/ Look up, look up, seek your maker, Gabriel blows his horn."
After 11 songs dealing with the scope of human trouble and talent, is this a call to judgment? Surely. Dylan not only lays the human predicament startlingly bare, he admits its necessary consequence and hints at its possible solution. A stunning finish to a stunning album.
Each new Dylan album ushers in an explosion of praise and hyperbole, much of it founded more on past works than present ones. Of course, all the attention is irrelevant if his latest recordings are not worthy. As Dylan demonstrates on Love and Theft, he can and will withstand the hubbub; he really is that good.