One of the most remarkable things about the young Bob Dylan -- the twenty-something kid with songs like "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" -- was his ability to sound wise beyond his years. Sure, he was stealing everything that was not nailed down, but his words carried an indisputable air of authenticity and authority. He was a sage old man before he hit 25.
By the year 2001, the man had the years (over 60), and more experiences than most people, to back his proclamations and prophesies. The Dylan of Love and Theft (2001) still finds his voice via a variety of narrators, some of which are not necessarily autobiographical representations. But some fans may have been listening even more closely now, taking the words deeper to heart. On songs like "Sugar Baby" and "Mississippi," much of the piss and vinegar of the angry young man has long passed. While some of the album's songs savor life's simple pleasures achieved by a man who has arrived at a certain station of accomplishment, what we are left with on "Mississippi" are glimpses of a man with not-so-bitter regrets and lessons learned and accepted. Over a catchy pop chord sequence and a riff that is reminiscent of old his songs like "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again" (with a lyrically similar theme as well) and "Just Like a Woman" -- both from his 1966 landmark Blonde on Blonde -- Dylan sings, "Feel like a stranger nobody sees/So many things we never will undo/I know you're sorry, I'm sorry too." The narrator's deepest regret, though, seems to be the limitations in truly knowing and understanding others, against the temporal limitations of mortality: "Your days are numbered, so are mine/Time is piling up/We struggle and we scrape/All boxed in, nowhere to escape...Ain't got nothing for you/I had nothing before/Don't even have anything/For myself anymore." But ultimately, the singer realizes that all we can do is work within these limits, this human bondage: "All my powers of expression/And thoughts so sublime/Could never do you justice/Reason or rhyme...But my heart is not weary/It's light and free/I've got nothing but affection for those who have sailed with me." And with a nod to Carole King, and a flash of Dylan's humor (ever-present on this album), he sings "Everybody's moving /If they ain't already there/Everybody's got to move somewhere/Stick with me baby, anyhow/Things should start to get interesting right about now" -- a line that might be better suited for a baby-boomer retiree's license plate than the ubiquitous old "we are spending our children's inheritance."
"Mississippi" was actually recorded for the preceding album, Time Out of Mind (1997), and was first offered to Sheryl Crow to record, which she graciously accepted for her 1998 Globe Sessions LP. Crow manages to squander the gift, though, completely transforming the beautiful song into a forgettable, head-bopping pop song along the lines of the Bangles' worst moments, the lyric's gravitas almost totally sapped of effectiveness.