BACKBEAT

THE GODFATHER, PART II

BY CHRIS BOURKE

 

Bob Dylan’s bark is now worse than his bite – and that’s a good thing. Love And Theft (Columbia) introduces an eccentric old man who could live down the road; sometimes it’s a pleasure to take in his reminiscences over the fence, other days he’s liverish or arthritic so his outlook is bleak. You can tell what mood he’s in by the song he’s croaking from the porch. Whether it’s a nostalgic reverie or a world-weary warning, the songs all reek of experience and the old man is worth treating with respect.

 

After the shock of the hectoring evangelism of Slow Train Coming (1979) had died down, Dylan’s releases were treated with diminishing respect or even interest. Only the slickly crafted and accessible Oh Mercy (1989) interrupted the apparent creative decline, and its patchy success seemed accidental once it was realised he had left the decade’s best track ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as an outtake. In the 1990s with his two albums of ancient folk songs World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been To You we seemed to be watching him stuck in a holding pattern, wondering if he could land safely before running out of fuel.

 

That all changed with 1997’s harrowing Time Out of Mind, which was Bleak House rebuilt as Bedlam. The songs featured a character that seemed to have wandered out of the pages of Flannery O’Connor: a misanthropic rest-home escapee, stumbling through the streets croaking out “The end is nigh!” Melancholic or haunting depending on your disposition, it made uneasy listening but it was undeniably a late-career statement to add to the canon. Time Out of Mind had a consistent mood of looking back with a jaundiced eye. After it was recorded, Dylan’s life-threatening heart virus acted like a marketing tie-in and for the first time in years critical respect was not only deserved but also forthcoming.

 

Dylan, the wily man of many masks and more career re-inventions than Jeffrey Archer, had been one step ahead all along. The two albums of folk-blues classics were a scholarly tribute to his musical primer: Harry Smith’s Biblical Anthology of American Folk Music. Time Out of Mind brought this heritage up to date – and showed that this roots music was indeed timeless.

 

His own timing was impeccable. The former student of Smith’s illuminating text was by now the godfather of all things Americana. It answered those who asked “O brother, where art thou?” – he was sitting at the right hand of Dock Boggs and Ira Louvin all along.

 

So the obituaries were rewritten into 60th birthday celebrations. The message of Love And Theft is that Granddaddy’s been in the basement, mixing up the medicine – and the potion is invigorating. Dylan’s 43rd album sees the brooding character of Time back on the dance floor, cutting a rug: he’s charming the wallflowers, winking at his drinking buddies, winding up the kids with shaggy dog stories.

 

Time Out of Mind’s heart-of-darkness is present only in a moving leftover called ‘Mississippi’: to a ruminative melody, a drifter is still stuck inside the Deep South, trying to get to heaven before they close the doors. Otherwise, we hear an aging border gypsy joyously stomping out R&B in battered cowboy boots. Rather than the grizzled studio vets of Time, Dylan has used his well-oiled road band, and all pistons are firing. They revisit the blues, country and rock’n’roll of Highway 61 and Blonde on Blonde with a casual rapport only possible after years together on the boards. Western swing, rockabilly, Elmore James: this band is a roots jukebox. The Backbeatles.

 

Dylan’s voice, once the most flexible of instruments, becomes increasingly an acquired taste. Ragged from years of touring and misuse, it now slips between two textures – croak and rasp – and about as many notes. There are nostalgic serenades here that sound like Bing Crosby crooning with throat cancer; blues that recall Howlin’ Wolf getting down in the groove. The voice is well-worn and deteriorating fast, but still a playful tool. Dylan’s astute sense of metre and dynamics remain, and like an old actor the interest is often in his ad-libs. He says with inflections what he used to say with melodies.

 

The big difference with Love And Theft is it sees the return of Dylan’s humour, his forte in Greenwich Village days. The album is populated with the offbeat characters, cautionary tales and barmy stories of The Basement Tapes, delivered with sly, Marxist one-liners. That’s Groucho Marx, calling down to room service to “send up a room”. We meet Darwin on the run from creationists, encountering a flood that would test Noah; and a Southern Romeo and Juliet, dancing to an old string band. These are tales heard on Grandpa’s knee, as he sings along to his old 78s. He doesn’t always make sense, but there’s an enigmatic wisdom to his words.

 

When Dylan first emerged as “the voice of a generation”, he echoed Kerouac and Holden Caulfield, with a distrust of phoneys, of leaders, of anyone over 30. Now he’s twice that age, and soon so will his baby boomer audience. Time Out of Mind faced an abyss of ageing that suggested “abandon hope, all ye who enter”. Love And Theft describes a happier alternative: a hoedown at the Sunset Home.