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After the critical and artistic success of his most recent studio release Time Out Of Mind, Dylan fans - from the drooling, basement-and-coffee-house-dwelling fanatics to the casual cats and kittens who dig here and there now and then - are chomping at the proverbial bit for his newest record, Love and Theft, which is due to be released next month. Time Out Of Mind is a heavy record in every sense of the word, and a brave one as well: far from triumphantly resting on his laurels, Dylan comes growling and muttering up from what sounds like the bottom of the pit, resignedly admitting that he's lost hope and that he 'can't even remember' what he came here to 'get away from.' Whereas at the beginning of his career some 40 years ago he could only play the part of a grizzled, train-riding old bluesman (a part he enthusiastically embraces on his first album, Bob Dylan, though he was barely twenty at the time), on Time Out Of Mind he sounded as if the blues had finally overtaken him. The album's a slow-motion meltdown, a weary, defeated conk on the head, and a tremendous achievement. Love and Theft's got a lot to live up to.

What with the new album, the so-called Never Ending Tour, and a fairly recent hospitalization with a heart condition brought on by inhaling rotten fungus (or so he claims), interest in Dylan is currently higher than it has been for a while. I have seen article after article on him in various music magazines and newspapers recently, and this is all for the good: after a frankly crap decade (the 80s), a lot of people had given up on Bob. The sneering, confrontational, brutally honest ultra-cool hepcat who'd seemed like he knew just about everything had faltered and fallen. 'You have it, then you lose it,' said musically-inclined wags down the pub the world over. 'Dylan's just a jerk-off like the rest of us now.'

Most of the recent articles that I've seen, and indeed most of the stuff I've ever read on Dylan, insist on a trio of his 60s albums as the best of his best period: usually Highway 61 Revisited, Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde. Fair play - they're all stupefyingly good - but I believe that, if you really want to go digging for some Dylan gold and don't know where to start, you go for a later threesome of albums, all from his 70s purple patch: Blood On The Tracks, Desire and Street Legal.

A little older, a little quieter, a little more interested in sharpening his approach so that some kind of story, some kind of information gets through, the Dylan of these later albums is an altogether more fascinating character. On some of the early albums it's easy to get the sense that Dylan's either a) so far up his own ass that he feels he can write whatever crap comes into his head and everybody will slobber over it anyway 'cause he's him, b) so mashed that he can't tell the difference between a lyric and a stream of unadulterated gibberish, or c) some trashed-out combination of the two. Not always, but sometimes. The much over-rated Blonde on Blonde is the best example of this kind of overblown ballyhoo, should you want to find out for yourself.

Blood On The Tracks, on the other hand, is razor sharp the whole way through, and is absolutely THE greatest break-up album of all time. I'd always known it was a good album, but it wasn't until I had my own heart shattered that I realized it was a PERFECT album. If you don't believe, go ruin your relationship - or let someone else do it for you - and then turn to this record. Every conceivable emotion that you'll go through is present and accounted for, from weepy sentimentality to hopeful optimism to seething rage to exhausted surrender. Brilliant.

Desire has a wider focus and a wilder, looser sound: a gypsy caravan, a streetfight, an African dance. It also has my personal favourite Dylan song, Isis, which contains my all-time favourite Dylan verse (the second-to-last). This is phenomenal writing of the highest order: mythical, simple, true.

Street Legal, as overlooked as Blonde On Blonde is overrated, deserves attention if only for the final track, Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat). A colossal song whose lyrics take in everything from sex to strippers to punch-ups with The Boss to Dylan's own upcoming Christian conversion, Where Are You...is every bit as powerful and perfect as other, better known long song-poems in Dylan's catalogue (such as Like A Rolling Stone). Not only that, it sounds better, for on this album Dylan coats the tracks with deep, sexy sounds (the new remaster makes this particularly clear) that'll do a number on your head and crotch that the thin and jangly early albums could never do. And that's no Cambridge lie.

If you've never listened to Dylan before, head for the 70s albums and hear something juicy. If you miss the 60s, like Peter, Paul and Mary, and wish the Vietnam War was still on so you'd have something to shout about in the streets, by all means stick with Dylan's albums from that period. He grew up, though, and the mature Dylan is infinitely acer than the sneery little guy who makes such an ass of himself in Don't Look Back.

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