Few have ever called Bob Dylan’s singing pretty. Even those who adore his distinctive rasp ‘n’ wheeze would probably agree that he’s been getting diminishing returns from his vocal cords for the last two decades. But if you thought Mr. Dylan’s pipes were shot before, you were wrong. On Love and Theft (Columbia), his 29th studio album (excluding compilations and boxed sets), he reaches froggy depths never before plumbed.
When he attempts to sing above his comfort range (definitely less than an octave), he produces a strained, phlegm-laced rattle. When he goes beneath that range, a disturbing octogenarian warble takes hold (and this from a man who’s only 60). Sometimes his voice just conks out mid-syllable: The word “cadaverous” leaps to mind.
And yet, once you’ve gotten used to Mr. Dylan’s severe vocal limitations, it’s hard not to admire how he gets so much mileage out of such a weak vehicle. He’ll slur his words for comic effect, take a breath before each one to add drama, or pack them together in conversational bursts to create a sort of rhyming monologue. Forty years ago, Mr. Dylan strove to emulate the phrasing of old folk and blues singers. Today, no striving is required. His singing has a crusty authenticity in which he takes obvious delight.
That delight is furthered by a fresh musical context. Amid the usual gritty 12-bars and country-tinged ballads, there are several songs on Love and Theft with a light, old-time swing feel. “Bye and Bye,” “Floater (Too Much to Ask)” and “Moonlight” could have been featured in a Fred Astaire movie–but only if you first removed that telltale croak and bizarre couplets like “I’m gonna baptize you in fire, so you can sin no more / I’m gonna ‘stablish my rule through civil war.” At such moments, the absurdity is overwhelming–and wonderful.
Love and Theft ‘s zany humor is a nice change from Mr. Dylan’s last album, 1997′s somber, overpraised Time Out of Mind . Though there are dark patches–the closing song, “Sugar Baby,” includes the line “Every moment of existence seems like some dirty trick”–much of what’s here recalls the surrealist shaggy-dog stories and sly non sequiturs of Mr. Dylan’s classic 60′s work, especially The Basement Tapes . Two shady fellows named Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee own “a brick and tile company” (of course!); a judge wants Charles Darwin dead or alive, “either one, I don’t care”; an unnamed character says he’s staying with Aunt Sally, then adds “she’s not really my aunt”–and leaves it at that.
Lyrics like these can bring out the worst in Dylan experts. Take Greil Marcus, a gifted writer who unfortunately loses all sense of reality when it comes to Bob. Invisible Republic , his book on The Basement Tapes , imbued Mr. Dylan’s songs with a preposterous level of mythic symbolism, and a few Sundays ago he was at it again with a barely penetrable New York Times review of Love and Theft . Memo to Mr. Marcus: Sometimes a goofy song is just a goofy song. And when they’re as engaging as Mr. Dylan’s, no further significance is necessary.