"Love and Theft" is the 31st studio album by Bob Dylan, released on 11 September 2001 by Sony BMG. The album continued Dylan's artistic comeback following 1997's Time out of Mind, and was given an even more enthusiastic reception. Though often referred to without quotations, the correct title is "Love and Theft". The title of the album was apparently inspired by historian Eric Lott's book, Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, which was published in 1993.
The opening track, "'Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum,' includes many references to parades in Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where participants are masked, and "determined to go all the way" of the parade route, in spite of being intoxicated. It rolls in like a storm, drums galloping over the horizon into ear shot, guitar riffs slicing with terse dexterity while a tale about a pair of vagabonds unfolds," writes Kot. "It ends in death, and sets the stage for an album populated by rogues, con men, outcasts, gamblers, gunfighters and desperados, many of them with nothing to lose, some of them out of their minds, all of them quintessentially American.
"They're the kind of twisted, instantly memorable characters one meets in John Ford's westerns, Jack Kerouac's road novels, but, most of all, in the blues and country songs of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. This is a tour of American music -- jump blues, slow blues, rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley ballads, country swing -- that evokes the sprawl, fatalism and subversive humor of Dylan's sacred text, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, the pre-rock voicings of Hank Williams, Charley Patton and Johnnie Ray, among others, and the ultradry humor of Groucho Marx."
Offered the song by Dylan, Sheryl Crow would later record an up-tempo cover of "Mississippi" for her The Globe Sessions, released in 1998, before Dylan revisited it for Love and Theft. Subsequently the Dixie Chicks would make it a mainstay of their Top of the World, Vote for Change, and Accidents & Accusations Tours, in an approach that substantially followed Crow's.
As Tim Riley of NPR notes, "[Dylan's] singing [on "Love and Theft"] shifts artfully between humble and ironic...'I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound,' he sings in 'Floater,' which is either hilarious or horrifying, and probably a little of both."
""Love and Theft" is, as the title implies, a kind of homage," writes Kot, "[and] never more so than on 'High Water (for Charley Patton),' in which Dylan draws a sweeping portrait of the South's racial history, with the unsung blues singer as a symbol of the region's cultural richness and ingrained social cruelties. Rumbling drums and moaning backing vocals suggest that things are going from bad to worse. 'It's tough out there,' Dylan rasps. 'High water everywhere.' Death and dementia shadow the album, tempered by tenderness and wicked gallows humor."
"'Po Boy,' scored for banjo with lounge chord jazz patterns, 'almost sounds as if it could have been recorded around 1920," says Riley. "He leaves you dangling at the end of each bridge, lets the band punctuate the trail of words he's squeezed into his lines, which gives it a reluctant soft-shoe charm."
The album closes with "Sugar Baby," a lengthy, dirge-like ballad, noted for its evocative, apocalyptic imagery and sparse production drenched in echo. Praising it as "a finale to be proud of," Riley notes that "Sugar Baby" is "built on a disarmingly simple riff that turns foreboding."
Christopher Ricks, a Warren Professor of the Humanities, writes extensively on "Sugar Baby" in his book, Dylan's Visions of Sin. "The song's beat is fourfold, and the rhythm of the instrumental opening is immediately confirmed by there being four syllables in each of the first two units. But the words that provide the title and that later open the refrain, 'Sugar Baby,' have their four syllables two by two, 2 x 2. The rhythm of the words 'Sugar Baby' is a dual rhythm, fourfold and twofold. And in pacing the song, Dylan pauses at certain points so as to make two syllables occupy the time and space that in the basic scheme of things will be expected to be occupied by four syllables. It is this movement in the voicing, with its pauses (contemplative, disconcerted, riven, chary, sardonic, shifting its grounds), that gives to the song its unique gait..." The song also bears the influence of Gene Austin's "Lonesome Road," first copyrighted in 1928; "Sugar Baby" even quotes a line from Austin's song: "Look up, look up and seek your Maker, 'fore Gabriel blows his horn." However, while both songs share a feeling of apocalyptic dread, the phrasing and structure is very different. "At every point in ['Lonesome Road'], the words and the music and the voice are fittingly in place," Ricks writes. "In ['Sugar Baby'], they are at odds. They move as the spirit takes them, and their spirit engages not only with the precious but with the precarious."
In the article published in the Journal, a line from "Floater" ("I'm not quite as cool or forgiving as I sound") was traced to a line in the book, which said "I'm not as cool or forgiving as I might have sounded."
Some copies of the CD were released in a digipack that included a limited edition bonus disc featuring two previously unreleased tracks: