From the Head of the Mule
Jewels, binoculars, Bob Dylan
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, October 12 2001

That Bob Dylan‘s new album -- “Love and Theft,” his 43rd and among his best -- was released on the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington is of course a meaningless coincidence, yet one that begs mention. Dylan has filled his music with Apocalypse for a long, long time, and the canon is chockablock with verses that seem to presage September 11 and the new world disorder:

Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon . . .

for instance, from that old toe-tapper “It‘s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Later on, when he got borned again, Dylan had more specific, less poetic things to say on the subject -- as in San Francisco, on the night of November 25, 1979.

The world as we know it now is being destroyed . . . In a short time -- I don‘t know, in three years, maybe five years, could be 10 years, I don’t know -- there‘s gonna be a war. It’s gonna be called the War of Armageddon. It‘s gonna be in the Middle East. Russia’s gonna come down first . . .

Though he seems to have moved on from this particular point of view, he is still steeped in and a habitual bearer of bad news -- which, in the curved world of Bob, is often indistinguishable from good news. There‘s a point where good and bad meet, where the love songs are full of hate and the hate songs are full of love, and there’s no telling them apart, and it‘s all just life (and life only). “Love and Theft” is a dark album in the guise of a light album, and the tension between the two makes the engine go. It is, on the face of it, sunny and rollicking and rendered mostly in a major key. (The carnival-creepy “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,” which opens the disc, is a notable exception, but it does have a good beat, and you can dance to it.) Even the blues are buoyant. The album is full of jokes, many of the grade-school kind Dylan’s been rehearsing as onstage patter over the past couple of years (“Well, I‘m sitting on my watch/So I can be on time”). Yet there is a dark streak of violence that runs through it: Tears are falling everywhere. God is around, lurking or Lording, but he’s a Lord with a sword. “I‘m preaching the word of God,” singeth the singer. “I’m putting out your eyes.” Leaves are rustling in the wood, things are falling off the shelf. The bucolic charms of a country twilight (“The dusky light the day is losing/Orchids, poppies, black-eyed susan”) turn morbid in the next line: “The earth and sky that melts with flesh and bone.” But I say this as if it‘s a bad thing, when for Dylan it clearly is not. “I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past,” Dylan sings in “Mississippi,” “but my heart is not weary, it‘s light and it’s free.”

I think that this is a great album. It feels like a great album, holding up handily to repeated listenings, both close and ambient. It transmits the confidence of its maker; it swaggers more than a little. (Produced by Dylan himself, pseudonymously, and recorded with his touring band, it has a familiar easiness, and a live kick.) That‘s partly a matter of attitude -- of seriousness, of sophistication (of a very subtle sort), of expressiveness and the sense that something actual is happening, something made but not manufactured.

Dylan’s power (as distinct from his talent) is, like any star‘s, invested in him by his audience, who have responded not only to his songwriting but to his exceedingly cool historical star-self. (It was only residual cool, at times, or phantom cool, that tided him over the dry spots.) His dandy clothes, his excellent florid hair, his tough boots and famous blue eyes all factor in. And that he remains personally elusive -- a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, stuck inside of Mobile, tangled up in blue -- keeps him as eternally fascinating as his most mysterious compositions. (Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule?) He’s the crossword you can‘t complete, and can’t give up. The more determined faithful seek to forge some kind of consistency, the way Star Trek fans try to resolve authorial carelessness into a stable cosmology; they strain to backward-engineer him through his records. But even when he seems to talk straight, he comes off as an unreliable narrator -- which somehow makes him more interesting than irritating. And in spite of the fact that he spends an enormous amount of time in public, singing songs at least some of which spring from personal experience or express his actual beliefs, he seems to be hardly there; a wraith, a visitation.

And yet he‘s a colossus; his shadow stretches across four-fifths of the last half-century -- along with his 60th birthday, Dylan is celebrating 40 years in show business. There are a couple of generations of pop fans already grown to whom he would rightfully mean nothing, being of a grandfatherly age and interested musically in even older forms and means of production; but everyone who writes a song to express a sentiment deeper than “Tell your Ma, tell your Pa/Our loves are gonna grow ooh-wah, ooh-wah,” or cares about such songs, owes him a debt. In any case he’s lately been hard to miss, winning Grammys for the 1997 Time Out of Mind, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for “Things Have Changed” (from Wonder Boys). Rolling Stone gave the new album its first five-star review for a new release in nine years. His songs are turning up in commercials. People keep writing books about him. And he‘s onstage about a third of the year, visibly having a good time and singing like he means it, in a grumbly voice that has moved from his nose to his chest and shows all the ravages of his age and bad habits (vocal bad habits, I mean, of course) and keeping the performing schedule of an indie punk band with its own van. But it’s the right voice for the songs and the time, and Dylan‘s sense of rhythm and sound is unparalleled.

Like Time Out of Mind, “Love and Theft” (the quotation marks are part of the title, which is borrowed from a book by Eric Lott on blackface minstrelsy) seems to exist in a patchwork past, in a landscape out of Joel Chandler Harris by way of Flannery O’Conner. I think of it also as a kind of down-home The Waste Land, set in American cadences and stitched from bits of old folk songs and blues, Tin Pan Alley tunes, the Bible, and other works of literature and myth, from Virgil to F. Scott Fitzgerald, with cameos by the real people of history -- though, unlike Eliot, Dylan leaves the footnoting to the fans. The meanings of these juxtapositions can‘t always be parsed, if meanings there are; but even as they slip away they create a picture. They mean what they say, even when they don’t say anything.

“Old, young -- age don‘t carry weight/It doesn’t matter in the end,” Dylan sings here, but the curious nature of permanent pop culture means that all his younger selves are simultaneously available for review, and inevitably suggest the irreversible flight of time‘s arrow. Yet he has achieved a point of integration now, where all those earlier selves collaborate -- “Love and Theft” is of a piece with Bringing It All Back Home and John Wesley Harding without aping them -- and somehow he does seem younger than ever. “You’re a worn-out star” the girls all say, as he drives in the flats in his Cadillac car, but he‘s in fighting shape, considering, and duded up with a rakish pencil-thin mustache that looks as if it might have actually been penciled on. (And if I read the reference right -- “I’m staying with Aunt Sally/But, you know, she‘s not really my aunt” -- he’s also, if only for a couplet, Huck Finn, the great American boy and free spirit.) He‘s ready to go. There’s always some new costume to try on, some new way to sing an old song. He not busy being born is busy dying. (Bob Dylan said that.)

© Robert Lloyd 2001 and 2011