Intelligence Data

Tames the proud, sees the cowards coming.
photo: David Gahr
Tames the proud, sees the cowards coming.

The voice you hear on "Love and Theft"is not that of the cocky young rock star who wrecked folk by simply strapping on an electric guitar, nor is it the vengeful and crotchety man who dripped Blood on the Tracks. This Dylan is older, wiser, and grousier, but sweeter, more sanguine if still unsettled too. There's a bitter taste in his mouth, but it's not bile. He might moan but he doesn't bitch, and whether you project the immediacy and portent in his words that I do, the depth and reach of songcraft remains monumental and omnivorous. "Love and Theft"presents an assured master working with a cornucopia of tuneful frames, all set out on leisurely, laconic display. There are blues forms and jazz forms here, gypsy-jazz folk forms, Tin Pan Alley and rockabilly, boxcar rounds, campfire sing-alongs and sea chanteys, cowboy songs, madrigals, and various alchemical mixtures as they're needed. His current band speaks his language, being connoisseurs of antiquity too, and are as adaptable, supple, and blissfully out of touch as any he's ever had. They understand how to support and navigate his juke-joint rhythms and cascading, sometimes colliding, cadences. Even at its most foreboding, this is good-time music. The overall impression it leaves is that of bodies in motion and bodies at rest, sometime at breakneck speeds and sometimes arrested, of folks flying forward and folks stopped dead in their tracks, having finally looked back to see what's been gaining on them. There is an economy, transparency, and conviviality that complement the newfound humility, civility, and camaraderie of our city—a place that, achingly, feels so much smaller in scale without our twin megalopolis-marking towers of money and babble, traded in now for a massive laying-on of hands.

So many prescient, portentous lyrics beg the question: What did Dylan know and when did he know it? Some up-to-the-minute somebody at the Federal Bureau of Immigration, very few Angolans, and no Haitians at all will surely wish to inquire about the former Mr. Zimmerman's connection to Osama bin Laden: Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee they're throwing knives into the street. Two big bags of dead man's bones, got their noses to the grindstone. Living in the land of Nod, trusting their fate to the hands of God. "Bye and Bye" 's breezy B-3 lounge jazz skates beneath lines I hear as fair appraisal of the conduct of our mayor and wartime consigliere, who will waltz out of office on a heroic grace note: Bye and bye, on you I'm casting my eye. I'm painting the town, swinging my partner around. I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust. I'm watching the roads, I'm reading the dust . . . The future for me is already a thing of the past. You were my first love and you will be my last. The national psyche, the national moment, the nightly jingoistic appeals to revive the national resolve, avenge the national honor, and spill the national blood can strangely, spookily be heard sounding their retort in this music Dylan wrote who knows how many months ago: I'm gonna baptize you in fire, so you can sin no more. I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war, make you see just how loyal and true a man can be.Dylan's sleeping giant is more wary, weary, and diplomatic than the one who rose out of Pearl Harbor, but just as ready to applaud good old American know-how and the desire to just get the job done.

There are also intimations of the lumpy-throated suspense we're all held in now, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop, the proverbial ax to fall, and what comes next, our collective jumpiness as it were: Last night the wind was whispering, I was trying to make out what it was. I tell myself something's coming, but it never does. In this Dylan you can hear the banjo-strumming wagon-train ghosts of America past riding shotgun with our after-the-innocence future shock, but because it's Dylan you also hear this place where the personal and the apocalyptic mesh. You don't understand it, my feeling for you. You'd be honest with me if only you knew . . . I'm here to create the new imperial empire. I'm gonna do whatever circumstances require.

"Po' Boy" is what hiphop would be if it told the tale of all those players doomed to lives of quiet desperation—Po' boy need the stars that shine, washing them dishes, feeding them swine. But it is in "Sugar Baby," the album's swan song, a final address to a tearful, fearful nation, that this record's kinder, gentler, crustier, creakier Dylan quietly dons his gold lamé glittersuit one last time and goes for the jugular with run-down, melancholic glee: Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick. Happiness can come suddenly and leave just as quick. Any minute of the day that bubble could burst. Trying to make things better for someone sometimes you just end up making it a thousand times worse. Your charms have broken many a heart and mine is surely one. You've got a way of tearing a world apart, Love see what you've done.Whether he's speaking as Dylan the martyred lover or as some kind of Jesus, the message appears abundantly clear: These may be the last days, but not even armageddon is going to save us from growing up, and our learning curve remains steep.

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