These days, new releases by most '60s rock icons are nothing but biographical footnotes, suggesting that perhaps the times made the men more than the men made the times. Then again, the three major exceptions still occasionally releasing exciting albums -- Neil Young, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan -- also had moments when their music sank to footnote level. Dylan may have slipped farthest of all, dragging his reputation through the mud of infamous releases like the 1989 split live album, Dylan & the Dead.
And yet Dylan's current revival has everything to do with a lifetime spent touring, which he has done almost as much as the Grateful Dead and far more than popular moneybags like the Who or Rolling Stones. Through countless forgotten package shows and folk-festival one-offs, Dylan combated apparent feelings of confusion, indifference, and increasing irrelevance before finally breaking through to the other side (helped, perhaps, by his second near-death experience). First came 1999's sincere, Grammy-grabbing portrait of the artist as an old man, Time Out of Mind, then the runaway critic's pick of 2001, Love and Theft, a portrait of the artist as God.
Cut with his touring band, Love and Theft is packed with all the old song forms that Dylan and his peers initially melded to invent '60s rock. Yet, instead of transforming those ready-mades with the sense of mission that fired his youth, he lays them end-to-end without distinguishing between mystical insights and cornball jokes, thereby making both more affecting. The breakthrough could mean everything or nothing for his stage show, but as Dylan croaks triumphantly near the album's close, "You always got to be prepared/But you never know for what."