There's something different about Bob Dylan's latest effort, Love and Theft. It's not the voice--Dylan has never sounded more Dylan. It's not the lyrics--Dylan tells a dozen stories on this album with the same quality of poetry that he narrated with 40 years ago.
What's odd about this Dylan album is the music--the man who never found a solitary guitar chord and harmonica blare that he did not like has greatly diversified his sound. Love and Theft is a collection of folky rock songs, folky folk songs, jazz and rapid-fire blues. Expanding on the stylistic changes he tried on 1997's Time Out of Mind, Dylan has compiled a soulful album that moves the listener with its upbeat melodies and words. Don't be surprised if halfway into a song you feel your ass start to shake and your hips follow. It's the danceable Dylan.
It's also the story-tellin' Dylan. The album's lead track, "Tweedlie Dumb and Tweedlie Dee," is a rocking retelling of the lives of author Lewis Carroll's characters--but instead of bumpkins, they're sly con artists. Dylan also rocks out on "Honest With Me," with a sharp slide guitar that matches perfectly with his gravelly voice (at some points, Dylan's grumblings can be mistaken for stomach noises).
"On High Water," we hear the story of the 1920s Mississippi flood, retold from the vantage point of the people who drowned in it: "Don't reach out for me/Can't you see I'm drowning too?" "Po' Boy" is a humorous song in which Dylan resorts to knock-knock jokes and wordplay to sing the ballad of every boy who's been walked upon.
The blues are back on "Summer Day," "Bye and Bye" and best of all on "Lonesome Day Blues." "Floater" opens with a refreshing violin that meanders in and out of trouble much like the song's protagonist.
The only track on the album that seems a bit out of place is the highly polished "Mississippi." Dylan snatched the song from Time Out of Mind and handed it off to Sheryl Crow. Crow jazzed it up and sounded out a delightful story of misfortune in the Deep South. Dylan slows it down, and while it works overall, it's a lot less fun than the rest of the album--there's nothing to dance to.
After four decades in the music business, Dylan has maintained an unimaginable level of personal creativity. The rest of the industry needs to think about the fact that our country's most versatile artist is a 60-year-old man. Then they need to go buy a copy of Love and Theft.