Bob Dylan looks back on 'Modern Times'
By SEAN DALY
Published August 31, 2006
On Tuesday, Bob Dylan released his first new album in five years, a veritable dino-dig of old blues bones, Jabberwockian wordplay and vintage roadhouse sounds winkingly titled Modern Times. On that same day, a crusade of scholars, sycophants and related shut-ins began digging through the disc - does the title reference Chaplin, Sartre? - for clues related to the man, the myth, the puzzle.
Dylanology, the study of All Things Bob, is an intense pop culture pursuit; there are college courses devoted to his work. This deification both irks and amuses the emotionally reclusive Dylan, who once infuriated followers by modestly comparing his skills to those of a mere "song and dance man."
As a result of the idolatry, Modern Times, stuffed as it is with old-timey references and wild doublespeak, often sounds deliberately built to mess with heads. For instance, the album was produced by Jack Frost - otherwise known as Bob Dylan, trying on yet another chilly mask.
For all the allegory, however, Modern Times also has the wistful aroma of a goodbye note. It's entirely possible that Dylan is bidding adieu, and that the album (and his enduring message) is simply about looking back, with anger and affection. The final installment in a career-rejuvenating "trilogy," the new disc is neither as bleak as 1997's Time Out of Mind, nor as fanciful as 2001's Love and Theft. Instead, Modern Times, which features Dylan on keyboards, guitar and harmonica, is both serious and shamelessly romantic, sepia-toned and pop culture savvy, a puzzling, puckish portrait of the artist as a 65-year-old antihero.
There have already been essays written about opening track Thunder on the Mountain, a chugga-chugga jalopy of a rock song in which Dylan blushingly croaks, "I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying. . . . I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee." Is the randy old hound dog literally seeking out the lovely R&B singer? Or does she represent purity, honesty and fresh-faced innocence, three things Dylan finds hard to come by these days? Either way, the song will get your foot tapping.
And the Dylanheads must have freaked when they heard Ain't Talkin', the album's mesmerizing eight-minute closing track. Reminiscent of the grim, reaperish Man in the Long Black Coat from 1989's Oh Mercy, the carefully picked blues dirge features Dylan "walking through the cities of the plague," his heart still yearning for hope, his head hurting after "someone hit me from behind." Who's keeping Dylan from his ultimate destination? Is it Death himself or merely warmongering death merchants? All these years later, Dylan can still keep you riveted while he's keeping you off balance.
And so on and on with the guessing games. Is uptempo rumbler The Levee's Gonna Break ("Some people still sleeping, some people are wide awake") about New Orleans? And just who's causing Dylan those restless nights on traditional blues chestnut Rollin' and Tumblin' ("Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains")?
For me, the album's great Rosebuddian revelation can be found in Dylan's style of singing, which, despite his usual broken-glass gargle, has never sounded so earnest, so open. Here's my theory: There's a big part of Bob that would gladly trade his membership to the Voice of a Generation Club for the ability to croon like Bobby Vinton.
You think I'm kidding? Listen to Spirit on the Water, a lazy river boating ditty that would have been perfect for Daisy and Gatsby back in the Roaring '20s. The May-December song is downright mushy in its lovey-dovey notions, and Dylan is unabashed in his delivery. Perhaps this is another message to Alicia Keys? Either way, there's not another song like it in the Dylan canon.
When the Deal Goes Down also has the ember heat of a torch song, although here Dylan and his "thorny crowd" are pining for the Lord - and won't that get the Dylanheads chattering! He also summons a full voice for Workingman's Blues #2, a protesty anthem with arena-sized heart that has drawn comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, the teacher nodding back at the student.
Critiquing - and for that matter, grading - icons is tricky business, especially their late-career output. It's impossible to consider Modern Times in the same light as, say, Highway 61 Revisited. Like a Rolling Stone was not only a great pop song, but also defined a generation. How do you top that? Dylan's new songs are good, some even great, but they also benefit greatly from his past, not his future.
Whatever the case, Modern Times is endlessly captivating. Recorded with his touring band, the album is a warts-and-all recording with no need for digital tricks and pitch tuning; it has the exciting energy of a one-take jam. And if it is Dylan's final statement, it's an appropriately enigmatic adios. After all, Dylan has always preferred to let the mystery be. It's the rest of us who are so intent on cracking the case.
Bob Dylan, Modern Times Columbia GRADE: B+