By Mark Guarino
Jokes, good and bad, drown inside Bob Dylan’s new album, “Love and Theft” (Columbia). In the song, “Po’ Boy,” a knock-knock joke, to be exact.
“Knocking on the door, I say ‘who’s it, where you from?’ Man says ‘Freddie,’ I say ‘Freddie who,’ he says ‘Freddie or not, here I come’,” Dylan sings, selling the song with both the boozy croon of Tom Waits and the lounge lizard wink of David Johansen.
He can afford the good humor. Dylan was heaped with high praise four years ago by fans who until then found themselves asking, “what about Bob?” With middling albums from the ‘80s through early ‘90s paired with trainwreck tours that offered Dylan in physical form only, he was on the verge of becoming a nostalgia act unable to shake the burden of his own icon.
What got him to the corner and made him turn was “Time Out Of Mind” (Columbia). Dylan’s collection of sober reflections on life’s fading years stunned for its purity and unflinching sentiment. Just as the young street punk spit fire with early songs like “Like a Rolling Stone,” his graying counterpart 30 years later wouldn’t cheapen old age by sentimentalizing it.
Through twinkling guitars and swampy murk created by producer Daniel Lanois, the music on “Time Out of Mind” is resoundingly sad. “When you think that you’ve lost everything/you find out you can always lose a little more,” Dylan moaned, one of its many heartbreaker lines. But the genius of the album is its lack of pity. Rather than whitewash the pain, Dylan offers it up with bruised dignity.
Grammys followed and so did a rejuvenating kick to his never-ending tour. Ever since, Dylan has once more fed the industry machines of full-time scribes camped out around him, including the clunky, myth-making prose of critic Greil Marcus and the celebrity sensationalism of bio writer Howard Sounes. The union of man and myth is what created Bob Dylan in the first place and strange news — reports he will host an HBO variety series, his near death heart surgery, the private concert he performed for the Pope — only punched up the proclivity.
But what is most interesting about Dylan’s new lease on life is his own response to it. He knocked out “Love and Theft” in just two weeks last spring with his current touring band (guitarists Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell, bassist Tony Garnier, drummer David Kemper) and Dylan himself at the forefront, producing.
Not as cohesive or as magical as “Time Out of Mind,” his 34th studio album is definitely one of his most lyrically dense, something its backdrop wouldn’t initially lead you to think.
On its surface, the 12-song, 57-minute album could be child’s primer on classic roots music: jump blues, rockabilly, bluegrass, and, in its most stylistic shift, the hot jazz guitar of early century gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt (check out Dylan’s very Django-esque mustache on the album cover).
The potent mix makes for obligatory toss-offs, good and bad. The song “Moonlight” glows with dapper romance, a seemingly forgotten jazz standard that could have been crooned by Fred Astaire 60 years earlier. And then there’s a song like “Cry A While,” which is unremarkable 12-bar blues rock.
But bubbling under the surface is a tossed-together batch of cryptic lyrics, sung in a voice that lately has come to sound like a gummy Carol Channing.
Undoubtedly, that’s some strange listening. But listen closer and the thread running through is blissful paranoia, where the world is crumbling on all sides and the sensible thing to do is crack a corny joke.
Take the six-minute blues rocker “Honest With Me,” opening with Dylan growling he’s “stranded in the city that never sleeps,” haunted by “memories … (that) can strangle a man.” As Sexton’s slide guitar cries in answer to every lyric, Dylan smiles crookedly. “You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice,” he sings. “Well, I’ll sell it to you at a reduced price.”
It’s with devilish delight that Dylan plays with extreme opposites and expectations. The song title “Summer Days” conjures up images from sunny Beach Boys hits, and its jump blues beat from an Elvis-era beach party. But when Dylan croaks the first line: “summer days and summer nights are gone,” consider that dismissed. The music still chases after Saturday night, but the party has long been over. “The fog is so dense you can’t spot the land,” he sings. “Why don’t you break my heart one more time, just for good luck?”
Recounting a mythical Mississippi Delta flood and dedicating the song to an acoustic blues pioneer, Dylan does so in a bluegrass song. “High Water (For Charley Patton),” is filled with references from blues lore and the moans from a chain gang choir, but the music comes from a different region entirely. Banjos, not slide guitars, rule and the song shifts the perspective to an outsider who’s happy simply to shrug at the disaster all around him than react with any type of passion. The picking guitars, mandolins and banjos tighten the tension but the narrator’s droll one-liners and apathetic shrug (“I don’t care”) chill.
That icy underbelly is the centerpiece of “Love and Theft.” While “Time Out of Mind” was a midnight wrestle with mortality, the sound of “Love and Theft” is the morning after. It’s livelier, goofier and Dylan practically chatters rather than sings.
But after awhile, the conversation gets spooky. The attempts at reflection gets sidestepped by so many haphazard references that, after awhile, even the jokes aren’t that funny (“I’m staying with Aunt Sally/but you know, she’s not really my aunt”). “Love and Theft” is a deceptively chaotic album of someone fumbling with his mind. Dylan’s smiling minstrel trips over himself to try to remember his routine, even when the curtain closed on him years ago.
Bob Dylan plays the United Center Oct. 27. “Love and Theft” is in stores Tuesday.