You can tell how much the critical establishment needs Bob Dylan by the praise heaped on his last studio album, 1997’s “Time Out of Mind,” which contained five excellent songs, five pretty good ones and one 161/2-minute bore. Music critics decided the album was all about death, and as this was, after all, the Voice of His Generation, it subsequently acquired meanings it couldn’t support and became representative of something monumental even if in parts it was unlistenable.

The new “Love and Theft” is a much, much better album. The tunes are sharper, the singing stronger, the playing and production cleaner (Dylan produced it himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost; “Time Out of Mind” was produced by Daniel Lanois, who hears thematic complexity and thinks “mud”). Most important, it’s funny.

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