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Bob Dylan 

Love and Theft (Columbia)

At 60, Bob Dylan's voice is permanently croaky. But that doesn't stop him from evoking such antecedents as pretty boy Rudy Vallee and obscure minstrelman Emmett Miller. Backed by a band that includes Austin guitar hotshot Charlie Sexton and former Sir Douglas Quintet keyboardman Augie Meyer, Dylan sounds comfortable here, commanding blues in the fierce "Lonesome Day Blues" and the surrealist "High-Water (For Charlie Patton)," rockabilly in the rousing "Summer Days," and rustic narrative in "PoBoy." More engaging and less overtly ambitious than the wintry Time Out of Mind, the 1997 album that proved Dylan was again on top of his game, Love and Theft is also more user-friendly. America's boomer laureate has returned with a clean, self-produced album of authoritative genre exercises, peppering tunes that sound instantly familiar with catchphrases that contextualize and resonate at the same time.

The album begins, thematically, with "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," a driven, fascinating variant on Blood on the Tracks' "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." In it, Dylan conjures images of carneys, card sharks, and sleight of hand -- the ambiguity at the core of his artistry. Just because you can't tell where "Dee" ends and "Dum" begins doesn't mean you can't tell the difference, Dylan suggests; the con works from either side. Dylan, too, is a con man, expropriating old-timey phrases and styles. Not only are the lyrics enthralling, Dylan gives the album an immediacy one usually associates with a concert. That he's promoting the album with a cool TV commercial (set to "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum") suggests Dylan aims to work his latest con hard. The songs of Love and Theft, which already sound lived-in and necessary, aggrandize Dylan's repertoire with class and verve.

More by Carlo Wolff

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