Monday, October 2, 2017

Love and Theft: A House of Mortar and Brick

Released September 11, 2001
Everyone of the records I’ve made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me.  America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I’ve never really sought inspiration from other types of music.

-Bob Dylan quote from Interview with Rolling Stone, 12/21/2001

"Love and Theft" glides through the past, present, and future in alternating timelines. Like Highway 61 Revisited, the album boldly traverses through vast landscapes; shifting terrains and existential cul-de-sacs.  Historical eras flip on a dime: one line in the civil war, the next the Great Depression, then uncertain futures.

"Tweedledum and Tweedledee" tells of two disreputable characters who leave wreckage and chaos everywhere they go. As Dylan relates their dubious adventures that range from running a brick and tile company to stealing pecan pies - it's clear they are amoral opportunists. There's a Gothic touch to the song, hints of Flannery O'Connor, as the duo swindle their way through a vapid existence (Robert Johnson and Tennessee Williams are also referenced). Despite their dubious enterprises; their stupidity and cruelty win out in the end; welcome to the new century, says Bob.

If life teaches us anything, it’s that there’s nothing that men and women won’t do to get power. The album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation . . . Rolling Stone Interview 12/21/2001

"Mississippi" had a long recording history, originally intended for the 1997 LP Time Out Of Mind. Dylan gave the song to Sheryl Crow for her 1998 LP The Globe Sessions. One of the central tracks of Love and Theft, "Mississippi" celebrates wondrous landscapes and individuality. A love song of sorts of well with line like, "All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime/Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme." "Mississippi" hints at autobiography with its themes of time passing and endless traveling.

"Summer Days" sounds like a jukebox hit from the early 1950s, a gumbo of blues, rockabilly, and swing. The sense of abandonment and malaise in Time Out Of Mind seems a distant memory; the mojo is back. "Bye and Bye" is the album's most placid song, a romantic ballad that recalls the 1930s.

"Lonesome Day Blues" burns down the house in a blistering onslaught of blues fury. Despair and defiance come in form of blunt declarations from a world weary character. "Lonesome Day Blues" could the basis of a lost film with Warren Oates.  The mention of the Captain always makes me think of the Civil War battle in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, sending his troops to die with an indifferent fatalism. A lyric confesses, "I tell myself something's comin', but it never does." It's a Beckett play set in some God forsaken space in anytown America (where everyday gets more absurd).

"Floater (Too Much To Ask)" may be the most perplexing song on "Love and Theft." Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg. Ohio comes to mind. The opening stanza speaks of "another endless day" of banality. Once again we're in Main street USA with all its exhausting power struggles, unrequited love, violent outbursts. Even Romeo and Juliet are bickering in a surreal aside. The narrator wonders if his pioneer grandparents had hopes or dreams and confesses he dreamed of "going with all the ring-dancin' Christmas carols on all the Christmas Eves." Well, Bob would release a Christmas album with a cover suggesting such imagery.  

Then magisterial "High Water (for Charley Patton)" plays with Southern mythology: the Mississippi River flooding, the emotional toll of looming apocalyptic threat, and a gallows humor that careens into social commentary. The verses weave from the tragic to the absurd:

High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down
Folks lose their possessions—folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook it—broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”
It’s tough out there
High water everywhere

And the lyrics get even darker, taking on a new resonance considering the fateful day it was released:

High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin' to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere

With a lynch mob ready to pounce on Charles Darwin and angry preachers threatening to put out your eyes, it's indeed getting rough out there.  The fade out is one of my favorite moments on the record; the banjos are the only defense against tomorrow.

"Moonlight" is the most romantic song on Love and Theft, a throwback to Cole Porter and foreshadowing Dylan's recent interest in American standards.

Basically, the songs deal with what many of my songs deal with - which is business politics, and war, and maybe love interest on the side. Rolling Stone Interview, 12/21/2001

"Honest with Me" is the closest "Love and Theft" comes to a modern rock sound, the pre-rock and roll influence gives way to a more industrial arrangement with the aggressive guitars that open the track. Each stanza is addressed to a woman and includes asides hinting at a never ending power struggle:

I’m here to create the new imperial empire
I’m going to do whatever circumstances require
I care so much for you—didn’t think that I could
I can’t tell my heart that you’re no good

The tenth track "Po Boy" bristles with a quiet, elegiac tone. The song follows the nameless "Po Boy" through many misadventures as he traverses the South, "Been workin' on the mainline-workin'  like the devil/The game is the same- it's just on a different level." He survives by traveling here, there, and everywhere, taking wage labor where and when he can, occasionally fomenting trouble, and tries to find peace. Despite it's short length, there's an epic scope to the Homeric travels chronicles in "Po Boy."

But it is time now for great men to come forward. With small men, no great thing can be accomplished . . . Rolling Stone Interview, 12/21/2001

In "Cry A While" Dylan returns to the blues, with zany one liners, verbal salvos fired into the void. The opening verse sets the tone:

Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
A nasty, dirty, double-crossin’, backstabbin’ phony I didn’t wanna have to be dealin’ with
But I did it for you and all you gave me was a smile
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry awhile
"Sugar Baby" concludes "Love and Theft" on a subdued note, a song filled with mysterious visions and meditations on existence.There's a sense of finality; Gabriel's about to blow his horn to announce the Second Coming.  The themes of the album get boiled down to their DNA.

"Love and Theft" brought Dylan into the new Millennium with a vengeance. The archaic references and hard earned wisdom resonated with audiences - old and new. The sound was unlike anything he put on record, finally hitting the energy of his live shows. As Dylan’s portrait on the album cover suggests, staring at you as he did on Highway 61 Revisited, daring the listener to enter and see where it will take you, it's a call to arms of sorts.  But the journey is more metaphysical that geographical, more questions are raised than are ever answered.

Things will have to change. And one of these things that will have to change: People will have to change their internal world. Rolling Stone Interview, 12/21/2001

Work Cited
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. Ed. Jonathan Cott. New York: Warner Books, 2006. Print.
Lyrics from