Love plus Ground Zero

The Straits Times, October 5, Life! section

Bob Dylan follows up his 1997 critical and commercial smash Time Out Of Mind, with an album that tells us the times are a-changin again

by Paul Zach

IN 1962, a year when America was all agog over teen idols, Bob Dylan wrote Blowin' In The Wind. A year later John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

That marked the start of the most dramatic decade of change in the United States in the 20th century. It also made the wisp of a young, Jewish folk signer from Minnesota sound like a prophet, and teen idols, passe.

At a time when the world was worshipping at the feet of boybands, the 60-year-old Dylan recorded his 43rd album and umpteenth masterpiece, Love And Theft. He released it on Sept 11. Everyone knows what happened that day.

Forget about Nostradamus. In the driving opening track, Tweedle Dee andTweedle Dum, Dylan suddenly seems to have made a U-turn back down Highway 61 and would up on Desolation Row.

"Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee/they're throwing knives into the tree/two big bags of dead man's bones/got their noses to the grindstone/living in the land of Nod/trusting their fate to the hands of God/they pass by so silently," he sings.

If anyone had a premonition of what would happen to thousands of people who went to work in the World Trade Center that morning, it would have been the same man who foresaw the tumultuous events of the 1960s.

"Tweedle Dee is a low-down sorry old man/Tweedle Dum will stab you where you stand/I've had too much of your company, said Tweedle Dum to Tweedle Dee," he concludes.

Like many of his greatest songs - A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall, Mr Tambourine Man, All Along The Watchtower and countless more - the tracks on Love and Theft can be read on several levels. Desolation Row could just as well be a broken home as Ground Zero.

Obviously, his new album's title implies that Dylan is as bemused, bothered and bewildered by relationships as he was on his 1975 classic, Blood On The Tracks. Love's folly remains at the forefront. Yet politics and the apocalypse lurk round every lyrical corner.

In the second track - the definitive version of his Mississippi, covered by Sheryl Crow on The Globe Sessions - his prescience gets downright scary.

"Every step of the way, we walk the line/your days are numbered, so are mine/time is piling up, we struggle and we scrape/we're all boxed in, nowhere to escape," he begins.

"City's just a jungle, more games to play/trapped in the heart of it, tryin' to get away/I was raised in the country, I been workin' in the town/I been in trouble ever since I set my suitcase down."

In the third verse, one line stands out. There's no need to point it out.

"Got nothin' for you, I had nothin' before/don't even have anything for myself anymore/sky full of fire, pain pouring down/There's nothing you can sell me/I'll see you around."

In her version, Crow sings it "rain pouring down". What makes Dylan's rendition so striking given the dark events of that sunny Tuesday morning on which his album was released is that he clearly sings it "pain pouring down".

No doubt it is just me reading things into the music of a man whose words have inspired me since I was an impressionable 14-yearold, the way others read into the predictions of Nostradamus.

Then again history's greatest men and women from Dante and da Vinci to Einstein and Kubrick have always seemed to have a direct line to some other plane of existence.

Other tracks on Love And Theft have lyrics that are equally ear-opening in light of the album's fateful release date. High Water (For Charlie Patton) comes across as an epic about the shape of things to come. "It's bad out there/high water everywhere" is the last line.

Notwithstanding the parallels, the album approaches those of the classic decade he began with 1965's Bringing It All Back Home.

The overdue recognition received for 1997's Time Out Of Mind, which the new album surpasses easily, seems to have rejuvenated Dylan. He is once again producing music more vital than anything else being made.

Like the songs, the album's title works on several levels. It seems borrowed from Eric Lott's book Love And Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy And The American Working Class, which presents a provocative look at he way black music and culture influenced white pop and rock artistes and vice versa.

Indeed, Dylan's music for the album is a tour de force of musical styles.

There are the hardcore blues of Po' Boy and Lonesome Day Blues and the blues-influenced Tweedle Dee and High Water. There is the jitterbug swing of Summer Days (tell me he's not singing "Osama breeze is blowing/a squall is setting in" instead of "a summer breeze"). And he closes the album with another in his endless line of gorgeous ballads. Sugar Baby will raise almost as many goosebumps as Lay Lady Lay.

Put away the keyboards plugged into computer software. Through it all, Dylan growls in the rasp that he's developed into the most unique and vital instrument in music today.

Forget the boybands fated to go the way of the dinosaurs after last month's cataclysmic events.

The giant is back.

The Lyrics