"A stone-cold Dylan classic."
Such has been the tidal wave of gushing praise that has swelled to meet Bob Dylan's latest release, Love and Theft -- which curiously resembles a similar wave that followed the release of his last album, 1997 Grammy-winner Time Out of Mind. But this onslaught of love for Love and Theft has come on with such force, few have stopped to consider whether all the hoo-ha is actually justified.
It's not. Love and Theft is little more than the sound of a supremely gifted artist piddling about. Rarely does Dylan stretch himself musically, lyrically or emotionally to reach any point he hasn't already thoroughly explored in his career. While none of these charges makes Love and Theft a bad album, it's certainly not the album of the year, his finest since Blood on the Tracks or a stone-cold classic.
The songs, for the most part, jump between rockabilly and a few variations on simple 12-bar blues. The band, a version of the outfit Dylan's been touring with for the last few years, is admittedly tight and often energetic. "Summer Days" struts like vintage Carl Perkins, "High Water (for Charley Patton)" is some fairly convincing country blues, and "Honest With Me" is a fierce little ditty with a slide guitar line that sounds like it slid straight off Dylan's mid-'60s barnburner, "Highway 61 Revisited."
But so what? This stuff's old hat for Dylan. "Lonesome Day Blues" is a good tune, but it was better 35 years ago when it was called "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat." A similarly tired arrangement sinks the otherwise serviceable "Mississippi." And there are a few outright stinkers, notably "Bye and Bye" and "Moonlight," both as pleasantly breezy as they are unfathomably dull.
Despite the guff he's gotten about it through the years, Dylan's voice has always been his secret weapon. Its pinched, nasally tone could twist and pull a seemingly innocuous line like "you're very well read, it's well known," (from 1965's "Ballad of a Thin Man") into a scathing indictment. But on Love and Theft, it often sounds like a hollow croak. The bare-bones production does it no favors, letting us hear every phlegmy scratch. Actually, the grittier blues ("Cry A While," "Sugar Baby") are well served by this timeworn grumble. But when Dylan sets his pipes to croon ("Moonlight," "Po' Boy"), things get ugly.
Then there's the matter of what he's actually croaking about. Love and Theft's lyrics -- full of puns, gags and aphorisms -- are initially its most appealing aspect. On "Lonesome Day Blues," Dylan plays the part of the old sage, snarling, "Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least." In other spots, he's the jester: "Poor boy in the hotel called the Palace of Gloom," he sings on "Po' Boy," before adding the punch line, "Calls down to room service, says, 'Send up a room.'"
Love and Theft is filled with this kind of stuff -- and while it's consistently amusing, it feels pretty insubstantial. These are not profound insights into relationships or the human condition; they're old saws, cute word games and clever parlor tricks. It's as if Dylan's trying to throw us off his trail. He's betting that if he tosses enough mildly interesting platitudes and quippy turns-of-a-phrase, few will dig through the tunes to realize that, for the most part, he doesn't have much to say. And judging by the waves of adulation, it's a good bet.
Love and Theft is far from the best thing released last year, but, in fairness, it hangs OK with its 2001 peers. The fact that it was released Sept. 11, though, seemed to have encouraged many folks to make connections between -- as Mikal Gilmore of Rolling Stone put it -- "the spirit of dread and uncertainty" that followed the events of that day and a supposedly similar sentiment that breathes through Love and Theft.
Chalk up such nonsense to the temporary insanity most of us felt in the days following 9-11 -- but it brings up a good point regardless. Albums should be thought of not just in the context of the time they're released, but also in the larger context of an artist's career. And the fact of the matter is, when measured against Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks, Love and Theft feels like something Dylan tossed off over a weekend. His emotional connection to the work feels tenuous at best. Perhaps he's having fun, but does that make it great? If so, it may be time to go back and re-evaluate those Warrant albums.
Not only does Love and Theft not stand up to his best '60s and '70s work, it doesn't necessarily distinguish itself from some of his much-maligned '80s and '90s outings. Oft-forgotten early-'80s albums like Infidels and Shot of Love have more interesting ideas on them; his pair of Daniel Lanois-produced efforts, 1989's Oh Mercy and 1997's Time Out of Mind, are far more listenable beginning to end; and Dylan sounds much more emotionally involved in his two albums of folk and blues covers, 1992's Good As I Been to You and 1993's World Gone Wrong.
So what gives? An editor at a major music magazine recently told me that it's important for their reviews to be "right." It would've been embarrassing if the magazine had given an album like Dylan's a lukewarm review when everyone else was calling it a stone-cold classic. This opinion is hardly atypical. Albums aren't so much reviewed by individuals anymore as they are reviewed by consensus. "What will everyone else think of this album?" is now the operative critical question, which breeds a herd mentality that's got nothing to do with genuine criticism -- only hype and bluster.
At this point in his career, Dylan has more or less outlived his critics. Writers root for him because his story -- his legacy, his mystery, his failures, his successes -- makes for good writing. He's paid his dues. He's put out some god-awful tripe through the years (Self Portrait, Under the Red Sky) and endured a well-earned savaging in the press for it. But now -- so the official line goes -- he's emerged on the other side of it, all the wiser.
As such, Dylan, once a fiery iconoclast, has become an institution. While many of his "bad" albums from the '70s and '80s were genuine crap, at least they found him attempting to reinvent himself, and refusing to be the deity his critics and fans wanted him to be. But the Dylan of Love and Theft has quit challenging himself and his audience, instead settling comfortably into his role as rock legend. He's bought into the cult of St. Bob.
It was over 35 years ago that the same man sang, "If my thought-dreams could be seen, they'd probably put my head in a guillotine." These days though, there wouldn't be much danger of anyone putting St. Bob's head in a guillotine. They're too busy bronzing it.
Bob Dylan plays Sat., Feb. 9, at Philips Arena, One Philips Drive. Show time is 8 p.m. $34.50-$44.50. 404-878-3000. www.philipsarena.com.
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