Ranking the Best 5 Songs on Bob Dylan’s Late-Period Masterpiece ‘Love and Theft’

Love and Theft proved that Bob Dylan‘s return to artistic excellence was no fluke. In 1997, he had emerged from a fallow period with Time Out of Mind, which earned him universal critical acclaim and an Album of the Year Grammy. Love and Theft, released in 2001, doubled down on that success.

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Each of the 12 songs on the album illuminate Dylan’s gritty worldview with sly humor and world-weary eloquence. But these five are the best of the best from an album for the ages.

5. “Lonesome Day Blues”

Daniel Lanois had produced Time Out of Mind and drenched the recordings with ominous atmosphere. Dylan felt ambivalent about that approach and decided to produce Love and Theft on his own (albeit under the pseudonym Jack Frost). The less-is-more tactics he used pay off on tracks like this, where he just lets his stellar band go to town on a basic blues structure. As a matter of fact, this album stands as one of the most musically invigorating of any in his log career. “Lonesome Day Blues” is compelling before he even sings a note, which means the piercing lyrics just put it over the top.

4. “Summer Days”

Love and Theft stands out as one of Dylan’s funniest albums. On “Summer Days,” he tosses off one-liners that are either genuinely funny (Why don’t you break my heart one more time just for good luck) or so corny they’re funny (Politician’s got on his jogging shoes / He must be running for office, got no time to lose). That lighthearted approach fits the music here, which rolls along in a rollicking, rockabilly romp, forcing Dylan to hustle his wordy lines just to try and keep up. The song became a thrilling live workout for Dylan and his band, but the studio take doesn’t exactly play second fiddle.

3. “Sugar Baby”

Dylan has always understood the value of a slow one at the end of an album, ensuring the listener turns off the stereo with emotions roiling (that is, if they don’t cue the whole thing up again.) “Sugar Baby” sounds a little like a leftover from Time Out of Mind, as that palpable portent is hanging heavy in the air for the entire song. It’s typical of Dylan’s late-period work in that the narrative jumps all over the place with his stream-of-conscious pronouncements. But he ties it all together with a heartbreaking chorus, one that suggests a permanent severing of ties of two people once deeply connected.

2. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”

Dylan and his bandmates sink into a furious bluegrass groove on this track, which is rife with apocalyptic visions. He name-checks an olden-days blues legend in the title, a la “Blind Willie McTell,” as a way of suggesting a continuum of doom that’s been perpetrating itself over generations. Blues idioms also pop up freely throughout the lyrics. But they’re used by Dylan to lead to some sort of dire endgame. Things are breakin’ up out there, he moans. High water everywhere. No one has ever cut to the dark heart of the world in song like Dylan, and this track epitomizes that skill.

1. “Mississippi”

People often talk about the intelligence and cleverness running through Dylan’s songs. But those qualities would mean nothing without the heart. “Mississippi” possesses heart in abundance. Framed as a tale of two on-again/off-again lovers trying to come to terms with each other and the passing time, the song allows Dylan to wallow in might-have-beens (So many things that we never will undo) and revel in gratitude (I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me). He plays it so close to the vest that it’s impossible to tell if his regret about overstaying his welcome in the titular state can be shrugged off, or if that mistake has damned his eternal soul.

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