To release your 31st studio album is pretty impressive. To still be touring 300 days of the year aged 60 is quite an achievement too. To use those rare days off to record one of the best albums you've ever made in a 40-year career is just plain extraordinary.
And it is. It really, really is. With no exaggeration, I would genuinely place Love And Theft in a top five - even top three - list of Bob Dylan albums, with the legendary likes of The Freewheelin' and Bringing It All Back Home.
Dear God, it's a good record. Where to start? Dylan opts for Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, a song that sets the tone and pace of the album with a rolling, rollicking delta blues rhythm. It's not the strongest song on the album, but it's great fun.
The desperate regret of Mississippi provides a superb follow-up, creating intrigue and empathy in the bars of an easygoing melody. Then Elvis takes over for Summer Days, at least if the opening guitar riff is anything to go by - except Elvis didn't reach 60 in time to sing:
Well, I'm drivin' in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say, "You're a worn-out star"
My pockets are loaded and I'm spending every dime
How can you say you love someone else when you know it's me all the time?
Teasing lyrics aside, Summer Days also shows off the work of David Kemper, easily the best drummer to accompany Dylan since Mick Jones in the '60s. His effect on the album is inestimable: while almost every one of Dylan's backing musicians is content to sit back and just be present, Kemper seems to have demanded to drive the songs, setting a frantic upbeat rhythm and pounding miniature drum solos. The rhythm changes on the sublime Cry A While are to be admired as well as enjoyed, as are its autobiographically ironic promise, "I'll die before I turn senile" and bitter opening words:
Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
A nasty, dirty, double-crossin', back-stabbin' phony I didn't want to have to be dealin' with
But I did it for you
And all you gave me was a smile
Kemper's efforts can also be heard very much in full flow on High Water (For Charley Patton), which is quite simply Dylan's best song since the '70s. Hell, it's one of his best songs ever. Apocalyptic and doom-laden, it's pure perfection and also proof positive Dylan should involve the fella on the banjo much more often.
With a thumping bass drum, tambourine and deathrattle groans for backing vocals, High Water is musically stunning. It transfixes you. Indeed, it's so good the whole of the Richard Gere/Billy The Kid segment of the film I'm Not There appears to have been made just so this song could be included. Then you have Dylan's typically marvellous scene-setting, of course:
They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5
Judge says to the High Sheriff, "I want him dead or alive.
"Either one - I don't care."
High water everywhere
Thanks to its rhythm and blues tone and often mischievous lyrics ("You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice / I'll sell them to you at a reduced price"), there's a tremendous sense of toe-tapping fun on the record - see Lonesome Day Blues and the riff-laden Honest With Me for two more excellent examples - but it's deeper than it may appear. Bye And Bye is much sadder on second listen, while Sugar Baby is particularly mournful and particularly brilliant too.
As for Dylan's love-it-or-hate-it singing voice, he finally seems to have found the husky old-timer's hushed whisper he's always wanted. Since the age of 21 he's done an impression of an old man with a whisky-sozzled blues croak; now he has it, it sounds damn good.
What with Love And Theft, modern classic Modern Times, the even better Together Through Life (in which his vocals hit their absolute best) and his incomparable Christmas album, this decade has turned out to be pretty fruitful for Dylan fans. Here's to another.
Spotify, you're really not impressing me at the moment - less, even, than YouTube, which has NO videos of songs from this album in their original arrangement (Dylan fucks about with them live).
Tomorrow: the album of the decade, revealed on its last day. Gasp in shock! Choke in horror! Roll your eyes in indifference!