The Thief of Time

Photo: AP Wide World Photo

On 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, Bob Dylan looked back on his life and weighed his loneliness in the doomed and mournful tone of the folk and blues songs he’s returned to throughout his career. Released four months after Dylan went into the hospital with a heart infection and “really thought I’d be seeing Elvis,” it was taken as the sound of a man who’s always had one foot in the grave balancing his earthly accounts, remembering his lost loves, and – in his words – trying to get to Heaven before they close the door.

But that, apparently, was in another lifetime. In the four years since, he’s appeared as a guest star on Dharma & Greg, shown off a new mustache on the Oscars, and performed almost 500 concerts with a group of crackerjack hotshots that’s jelled into his best backing band since the Band. Without the influence of an outside producer, “Love and Theft” showcases the gloriously sloppy spontaneity he’s displayed onstage but only rarely captured on record. He’s also traded in rueful ruminations for young-gun cockiness, old-man contentment, and the kind of wise-guy gibes he threw like daggers in the sixties. “Feel like a fightin’ rooster, feel better than I ever felt,” Dylan sings on “Cry a While,” “but the Pennsylvania line’s in an awful mess and the Denver road’s about to melt.”

Maybe Dylan once again sees death as something to forestall, life as something he has to struggle with in the meantime. Either way, “Love and Theft” pulses with a passion that would be startling from a man half Dylan’s age. For the most part, he still doesn’t exactly sound happy – “High Water” offers its share of apocalyptic imagery and “Mississippi” is a classic Dylan travelogue of trouble – but backed by Charlie Sexton’s guitar and his own knowing sneer, his gripes now once again sound like challenges rather than epigraphs.

“Love and Theft” doesn’t only offer a tougher take on the blues Dylan never completely left behind. On several songs, Dylan slips into a Bing Crosby croon, contentedly offering that “I’m rolling slow / Going where the wild roses grow” with the satisfied smoothness he brought to “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” It’s a gutsy move for more than the obvious reason – Dylan’s always followed folksier musical forms and, cut off from the traditions that have sustained him, he has nothing to fall back on but a voice that’s too raw to take at face value but too distinctive to ignore.

Two of the constants in Dylan’s career have been his deeply felt sense of living in a world gone wrong and his obsession with not letting that world get a bead on who he really is. “Love and Theft” is fascinating at least in part because, as on Blonde on Blonde, the only thread that ties it together is “that thin, wild mercury sound” Dylan once told an interviewer he heard in his head. In both sound and spirit, “Love and Theft” makes it seem like he’s back on the road, once again the kind of traveling troubadour he used to idealize from afar. Having been around long enough to see it all, he’s only too happy to sit down and tell you where his life has taken him. Just don’t ask where he’s going – or who he’ll be when he gets there.

In Brief: A distant Dylan descendant in smarts (profound), subject matter (America), and voice (oddly uncommercial), Grant Lee Phillips has worked on at least one album, Mighty Joe Moon, that sounds a bit like a latter-day version of The Basement Tapes – all whispered intonations of modern myth. His second solo album, Mobilize, is more modest, but mythic expectations effectively collide with cold reality on songs like “We All Get a Taste.”

Bob Dylan
“Love and Theft”
Grant Lee Phillips

The Thief of Time