Rock’s most celebrated poet strikes again.

Bob Dylan
?Love and Theft?
Columbia Records 2001

Bob Dylan is the most important recording artist in the world. Unlike contemporaries such as Mick Jagger, Dylan continues to evolve musically, refusing to recreate the sound and image of his past glory. In the 1960s Dylan was dubbed ?the voice of a generation.? Songs such as ?Times They Are A-Changin?? and ?Blowin In the Wind? became anthems for the anti-establishment movement and Dylan was being viewed as a latter day prophet.

When Dylan traded in his Woody Guthrie work shirt and acoustic guitar for electric six-string and black shades, he became the prototype of punk. Spitting out lyrics such as ?How does it feeel/ To be on your own / With no direction home / Like a complete unknown / Like a rolling stone,? he was the personification of cool, the witty hipster to which the Beatles and everyone else under 30 aspired to be. Alas, before his 26th birthday he hung up his rock ?n roll shoes (seemingly for good), grew a beard that made him look like he would be more suited for performing Bar Mitzvahs rather than rocking the Hollywood Bowl, and relocated to upstate New York to spend time with his wife and kids.

Had he never recorded again, Dylan would still be regarded today as one of the most important human beings to ever pick up a musical instrument. During the mid-1980s the majority of the music community wished he?d done just that – fallen off the face of the earth and allowed his pristine image to remain frozen in time forever. However, the man who wrote ?If you ain?t busy being born / You?re busy dyin?? had to plunge forward, even at the risk of his reputation.

Although Dylan has never come close to matching his creative output of the mid-1960s, not a decade has gone by without him producing at least one legitimate classic. In the 1970s Dylan made his first so-called comeback with Blood on the Tracks. At the end of the1980s Dylan struck pay dirt with Oh Mercy. In 1997, after recovering from a near fatal heart ailment, Dylan watched his release Time out of Mind sell more than a million copies and earn him three Grammy Awards, including Best Album.

Since 1997, Dylan has played over 400 concerts across the globe, including a special show in front of the Pope that drew a crowd of 500,000 in Italy. In 2000, Dylan was awarded a Golden Globe and an Oscar for ?Things Have Changed,? a song he wrote for the Curtis Hanson film Wonder Boys. ?Love and Theft? has been one of the most anticipated releases of the year.

What would rock?s most celebrated poet come up with next? Considering that Under the Red Sky, Dylan?s 1990 follow up to the acclaimed Oh Mercy, was universally panned, many critics and enthusiasts doubted Dylan could muster the creative strength to make a significant statement for the new millennium. With ?Love and Theft,? rock?s sagacious jester strikes again with a baffling curveball.

For Oh Mercy and Time out of Mind Dylan employed U2 producer Daniel Lanois and a handful of guns-for-hire to create a caliginous atmosphere of hypnotic guitar hooks and haunting organ licks. Dylan has been articulating the same ?world gone wrong? theme for the last 20 years. On ?Love and Theft,? the crusty troubadour conveys a similar message, but from a fresh perspective that substitutes stark despair with humor and sardonic wit.

While the ornery singer/songwriter?s last album was dramatically personal, on ?L & F? Dylan communicates from the perspective of desperate characters from the past: highwaymen, gamblers and doomsday preachers. Dylan eschews modern trends and returns to the roots: western swing, vintage Chicago blues, Dixieland jazz and rockabilly, plowing like a passenger train through one hundred years of American music.

?Love and Theft? opens with a twisted tale of betrayal, ?Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,? that moves briskly behind rolling drums and boogie-woogie guitar riffs. Dylan?s voice sounds as ravaged as it did on his last album, however his leathery vocals fit like a glove around the backwoods subject matter.

Using the Mississippi flood of 1927 as a metaphor for the apocalypse, Dylan turns ?Highwater,? a tribute to Delta blues legend Charley Patton, into a stirring reflection on the ugly underbelly of southern history. A world where they got ?Charles Darwin out there on Highway five? wanted ?dead or alive,? and one must ?dance with whom they tell you to or you don?t dance at all.? Dylan used the same narrative technique on ?Blind Willie Mctell,? a song he wrote in 1983.

On ?Honest with Me,? Dylan and his road-tested band mates turn in a sizzling rocker with a killer guitar hook that sounds like a revved up version of ?Highway 61.?

The only time Dylan?s weather-beaten voice fails him is when he tries to capture the sentimental romanticism of Tin Pan Alley on ?Moonlight.? When he tries his hand as a tongue-in-cheek lounge singer on ?Bye and Bye? his vocal chords fall short, also. However, even while stumbling, Dylan still manages to connect with humorous lines such as ?While I?m sittin? on my watch so I can be on time / I?m singin? love?s praises with sugar coated rhyme.? Anyone can fit a love song with a line such as ?I?m tellin? myself I?ve found true happiness,? but only Dylan can follow it with ?that I still got a dream that hasn?t been repossessed.?

Dylan is back. At sixty years old, rock?s most venerable icon is making some the most inspired music of his career. In an era of drum machines and sampling, where rage is the hottest fashion and the superficiality of teen sex goddesses and prefab boy-bands rules supreme, Dylan offers a welcome alternative.