Only a small number of people understand this: The Rolling Stones are not the world's greatest Rock & Roll band. They are the world's greatest Country & Western band! Even fewer people realize that Bob Dylan is not the greatest living folk singer. He is the greatest living Blues singer! That's right. But almost no one has noticed that the Blues is long gone. (And so also is country and western.) Over. Dead and gone. Right? (It has always been my thought that, if you want to find you some real honest to goodness authentic blues singers, you gotta get you two shovels -- and head straight for the cemetery.)
That's what I always thought. Until recently. Bob Dylan's just released album, Love And Theft has made me change my mind about this blues' is over stuff. The blues ain't dead and it never was gone. Neither is Bob Dylan and I just realized that he's been making the real blues all along. Love And Theft is nothing else if not chock full of full-tilt hard-core boogie-blues in the style of Subterranean Homesick, Tom Thumb's, and Tangled Up In... and, It's All Over Now Baby Blue(s)!
The problem with most modern blues musicians is their tendency towards writing hipper newer-sounding, but less good meaning or deeper feeling lyrics and simply installing them into smoothed-out, slicked-up instrumental arrangements of standard blues riffs. Guys like Leadbelly, Skip James, Bill Monroe, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, et. al... they were the real 'it. These guys got to the point of the song extremely quickly, kept it raw and undiluted, and then, blasted it home with not even a trace of perfume baby oil or decorative motifs. Nothing added to the core content for the senses to linger on or the mind to be distracted by. They kept it real and right at ya.
The blues I liked always had that cobbled from cheep paint, rough tin and scratchy wool feel. It always felt like it came from outside society and inside the heart. The blues most powerful emotional punches are usually inspired by the artists deeply wounded pride or a tragic fear of falling into spiritual nothingness. Artists like Leadbelly, Bill Monroe and Skip Jones always crafted their songs to (literally and figuratively) drive their philosophical points home as sharply and sadly as possible -- but always with great physical force. I thought all the real punching and bleeding and driving and pounding was over by 1961. I thought the blues ended with John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. I thought Chuck Berry and Little Richard and James Brown had converted country blues and Chicago blues to some newer, more multicultural, currency. But several contemporary artists have proven me wrong and Bob Dylan is paramount among them.
The best thing about Love And Theft is; no one will ever be able to say with complete certainty that any of Bob Dylan's earlier records is clearly better or more well-fashioned or better or more broadly-conceived or more unselfconsciously poetic or artistically ambitious or deeper in meaning than this new one. This is the good news and that alone is a very big statement.
But there is some bad news too. It appears that only brave music critics, geezers that came of age in the sixties, and a few geeky teen-malcontents with a sniffer for leading edge art will ever really listen to Dylan's new work.. (Hell, didn't N'Sync sell more records in one weekend that Dylan did in his whole career?) And this is all a crying-fucking shame.
At 60, Bob Dylan may now have to open for some younger bands but he still stands as tall and leaves as long and dark and impressive a shadow as any poet-singer-songwriter of the 20th Century. A few people think he's the bard. But, once Dylan said he was not a great artist. He said his only real talent was that he "understood" all the old masters like Leadbelly and Robert Johnson "better than most". He said he also had a talent for becoming (or pretending to be) persons he was not.
But now, by some grace and by the powers that constantly form the ridiculous, Dylan can finally and fully be just himself. And on Love And Theft that is exactly what he does. This is funny too because it is not like Dylan ever sold out or tried to be anything but himself. It is just that I don't think he ever, not even in the beginning, knew who he "himself" was. Love And Theft suggests that he just now figured that out.
From where I'm sitting it looks like repeatedly, throughout his career, Dylan would sit down and draw a picture of himself and then try his damndest to do what it takes to look and sound like the fella he pictured in the drawing. Looking back, it seems like he was pretty good at it. But in the end, the work is still slightly diminished by the artist's 'posing'.
Always, on every record, Dylan showed us what he thought he understood about us and our world. Who he thought he was and who he thought we were. Over and over, in every song, he'd say, I think the world is like this. Then he'd say, no, I think it is like that. No, no, he'd say, I'm wrong, it must be like this. Or this! And my generation not only believed him but we tried to make our own selves fit into the outlines of the pictures he drew.
Then something happened, not so much to Dylan, but to his audience. During the nineteen-eighties and 'nineties, all but the most faithful of Dylan's audience stopped trying to understand him. They gave up on the ol' minstrel with the crusty voice and multiple religions. They moved on and tried to wrap their minds and hearts around some newer artists. But, 1997's Time Out of Mind brought a big chunk of Dylan's old audience back. It also gave Dylan some freshly minted fin de siecle street cred. TOM looked like either Dylan's last hurrah or the start of Dylan's second big career.
The music on L&T is very dense and so is the allegorical and metaphorical content. Listening to more than say three or four songs in one sitting can be exhausting. It is disconcerting how difficult it is to comprehend some of the new visions Dylan has engineered in Love and Theft. You see, Dylan is already guaranteed his spot in the Hall of Fame -- so he figures why not make the audience sweat and struggle a little? That is exactly what he does on this album. And, after he gets you sweating and almost too nervous to laugh at all the satire and jokes he has included ("I'm sitting on my watch so I can be on time…") he runs you over and knocks you down with the lucidity and good conscience of his latest revisions on the state of the state of the world. He tries to tear you up. And then sooth your pain with a little soft shoe. He croons a bit of sap like the old love songs. And then he starts cutting again. But, what he does mostly though is what he has always done best -- traffic in allegory and social critique.
That is why I like this record so much. In it, over and over, Dylan reinvents musical idioms and tries to discover what might constitute a powerful NEW style of blues song. Dylan is always looking to add meaning to songs. On L&T he has found a whole bunch of ingenious new ways to cut his songs from old tin highway signs and scraps of cotton overhauls. From these crude materials, he makes songs that are so new and well-tailored, you will scratch your head in wonder. You'll be amazed. These songs have their own new kind of beauty and directness. They represent poetic and philosophical viewpoints beyond the average sophistication of popular music. They decode the world we're living in and show us meanings and relationships that blues songs and boogie-ballads never did before!
These compositions are indeed real blues songs like kind Huddie and Chester and McKinley used to write -- except that their true strength comes from a new order of poetic and dramatic content. Artists like Leadbelly, Skip Jones and even Kurt Weil were actually mining the angst of the end of the 19th Century (not the 20th) for artistic content. In contrast, Bob Dylan's new blues are about exposing the late 20th Century's complete lack of connectedness. Dylan uses a different set of musical and aesthetic tools to access his audiences heart and mind. Which makes these songs a reinvention of an important old idiom: The Blues -- once tangled up and dark and strange -- are now dense and ridiculous. Death is no longer sad and lonely -- Dylan returns it to its natural condition -- just a not-very-serious blip in the journey of a soul.
On first listen, Love And Theft can be sort of under whelming. That is because it is so musically strange and emotionally dense. It takes some effort to enter Dylan's new vision. Buy the CD and then listen to it like three times as background music. Try and get used to the strange sound of it. Then sit down and listen only half seriously. Listen for fun, to the songs that grab you easily. Which definitely will include the first cut, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum". This Tweedle song is about an average contemporary man and his brother -- "throwing knives into the tree, two big bags of dead man's bones . . . they got their noses to the grindstone…" -- it is rendered in the same fantastic full-tilt-boogie style of Subterranean Homesick Blues. I've been playing it over and over practically non-stop. "Summer Days", "Bye And Bye", and "High Water (For Charley Patten)" are major quality, swinging, ass kickers too.
Consider the first tune, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum", as a warning. It also tells you up front that Dylan ain't fooling around on this album. "Just for fun" means you'll probably lock right into at least half the songs. The other half will require some effort because the hooks are not so obvious. The more fun ones are not simple or dumber they just contain a few more easily accessible elements. But don't worry, there is no fluff or filler here. It is all art and all poetry and all kick ass rollicking post, post, neo, neo, modern American music to make your soul sing and to dance with, if not joy, than with the all the dizzying possibilities for realizing the sublime and the ridiculous. (It really is too bad Dylan is so far off so many people's radar.)
The best thing about Love & Theft is how Dylan has finally figured out that he don't need to draw pictures anymore. He doesn't need to become a created persona. We find him now, having shed most of his old disguises -- singing and dancing coyly in the patterns of light and shadow made by the confluence of the world's great blues troubadours. That's Zimmy we see down there by their rough feet, telling us what he has learned, almost mumbling, growling, and moving from the shadows to the light and back again. Sometimes hiding behind Charlie Patton's shoe or whispering something about Moses and the riddle of the never-ending laws -- then leaping out into the bright light and reminding us, that his talent has not diminished, the world and its people are not better or worse than they once were and that every wager we are making is always for our own souls. Love And Theft leaves no question, Bob Dylan is not dead yet. He is not even old. In fact, he is still, very busy... being born.