Here's one story that is true: Dylan is back. Not sort of back, making music that starstruck critics feel compelled to applaud just because Dylan's the guy who plugged in at Newport, or because he's the visionary who wrote Like a Rolling Stone, or even because he's the man who first declared that The Times They Are A-Changin'. He's all the way back--so far back he's up front--once again making music that's worth talking about, not because of what he did 10,000 yesterdays ago but because of what he's doing today. His new album, Love and Theft (Columbia), his 43rd release, is charged with rollickingly good music and enlivened with some of the best lyrics Dylan has spun out in decades.
The story goes like this: a '60s icon, a touring firebrand in the '70s, slows to a grind in the late '80s and, amid reports of his drinking too much and caring too little, loses all touch with his muse in the early '90s. Then comes the acclaimed album Time Out of Mind in 1997, a Grammy in 1998 (his first for best album), an Oscar for best song (another first) in 2001 and worldwide celebration and plaudits on the occasion of his 60th birthday, which took place on May 24 of this year. "Well, you know, I stopped counting after 40," says Dylan. "I'm sure you would too." He says he has got past the heart ailment he had in 1997, and is feeling fit. He adds, smiling, "A day above the ground is a good day."
But that's just part of the story. The tale could have ended like this: it was 1987 and Dylan was about to embark on a tour with the Grateful Dead when he decided to quit the music business. At that point, he had been mailing in his performances for years; he had even hired backup singers to distract audiences from the tired ruin of his voice. He couldn't even remember the lyrics to his best, most challenging songs, like Desolation Row and Queen Jane Approximately; what's more, he didn't want to remember them. "I'd become a different person since I'd written them," Dylan recalls, "and, frankly, they mystified me." The members of the Grateful Dead, however, loved the old songs and wanted to play some of them with Dylan. The realization that he had grown so estranged from his art drove Dylan to despair. "At that point, I was just going to get out of it and everything that entails," he says.
Then came an epiphany. He was in California with the Dead, practicing for the tour, when he saw a group of younger performers in a club. They were playing middle-of-the-road jazz standards, but they had a youthful energy. Says Dylan: "I suddenly realized, you know, years ago when I was young, whenever it was that I started out, I knew these kind of guys." He resolved to reconnect to his music. A few not-so-great albums followed, such as World Gone Wrong, but eventually Dylan found his path and released Time Out of Mind, and now Love and Theft. The end.
If this sounds a little apocryphal, that's part of the story too since Dylan--born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn.--has revised and reinvented his past from the very start of his career. On Summer Days, a track from Love and Theft, he sings, "She says, 'You can't repeat the past.' I say, 'You can't? What do you mean, you can't? Of course you can!'" Dylan talks like he sings, in that ancient lilting rasp, stressing unexpected syllables, mesmerizing with folky cadences, loping along somewhere between conversation and caterwauling. All the compositions on Love and Theft are autobiographical, he says. "Yeah, all of 'em. Every single one, every line. It's completely autobiographical, as most of my stuff usually is on one level or another."
Indeed, Love and Theft is an album of memories, of old genres and antique grooves. The songs have a sense of history and a sense of discovery; hearing them is like finding a stack of vintage records in an old uncle's attic. The opening track, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, churns to a boogie-woogie-ish beat; the radiant Moonlight evokes Tin Pan Alley crooning and Western swing; and on the song High Water, Dylan pays tribute to blues pioneer Charley Patton. "All my songs, the styles I work in, were all developed before I was born," says Dylan. "When I came into the world, that spirit of things was still very strong. Billie Holiday was still alive. Duke Ellington. All those old blues singers were still alive. And I met and played with many of them. I learned a whole bunch of stuff from them. And that was the music that was dear to me. I was never really interested in pop music."