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This Year's Dylan Is a Sonic Dynamo

* * * * BOB DYLAN "Love and Theft" Columbia

September 09, 2001|Robert Hilburn

"Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," the opening track on Dylan's jubilant new album (due in stores Tuesday), rumbles out of the speakers with the liberating energy and authority that have been the hallmarks of great rock 'n' roll since Elvis Presley's electrifying Sun recordings a half-century ago.

From the runaway-train intensity of the rhythm section to the locomotive wail of the guitars, the track is such a striking sonic force that you may find yourself turning up the volume and playing it over and over before you move on to the next tune.

Although the musical settings elsewhere on the album shift from the jump blues exuberance of "Summer Days" to the relaxed, Bing Crosby-like croon of "Moonlight," the execution is always dynamic and assured. This is possibly the first Dylan album since "Highway 61 Revisited" in which the music catches your ear before the lyrics do.

Dylan, who produced the album, is so at home with these various textures that it's easy to imagine him carrying them in his head since falling under their spell as a youngster in small-town Minnesota--the raw, gutsy sounds of country and blues radio stations from the South, and the more polished tunes played by society orchestras late at night on Midwestern outlets.

But "Love and Theft" isn't just a stroll down some distant memory lane. Backed splendidly by his road band of guitarist Charlie Sexton, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer David Kemper, Dylan infuses the songs with the thoughtful, provocative and teasing wordplay that is his particular pop genius.

In contrast to the thematic unity of "Time Out of Mind," his acclaimed 1997 album that focused on the narrowing of life's options as one ages, the subjects in "Love and Theft" are unusually diverse. Individual songs are crammed with competing images and ideas, resulting in an album that is far more upbeat and entertaining than the stark "Time Out of Mind."

Dylan moves from tunes as intricate as "Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum," whose wry storytelling has all the twists and turns of "Tangled Up in Blue," to ones as deceptively simple as "High Water," a blues-driven look at romantic tension, without losing a beat.

"Mississippi," one of the highlights, is a track left over from "Time Out of Mind," as the somber theme suggests: "Time is pilin' up, we struggle and we scrape/We're all boxed in, nowhere to escape."

But the rest of the tunes are frequently lightened by unexpected bits of humor. In the delicate, pop-accented "Floater," he offers:

Romeo he said to Juliet, "You got a poor complexion.

"It doesn't give your appearance a very youthful touch."

Juliet said back to Romeo

"Why don't you just shove off if it bothers you so much."

But Dylan also tucks in the usual philosophical asides: "Well, the road's washed out/Weather not fit for man or beast/Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with/Are the things you need the least."

For much of its 57 minutes, "Love and Theft" feels as if someone has gone back and applied the challenging, literary-minded, introspective elements of Dylan's revolutionary songwriting approach to the musical settings that preceded him--and who better to do that than Dylan himself?

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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