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Bob Dylan: Modern Times

Sony, 2006

Rating: 4.0

 

Posted: August 25, 2006

By Laurence Station

What? You were expecting phat electronic beats with a DFA remix or two tossed in for good measure? Despite being called Modern Times and name-checking R&B songstress Alicia Keys (who was born in 1980, the same year Dylan released his 25th album), the legendary performer’s lovingly blues-saturated newest release, sonically speaking, has very little in common with current musical trends. Historically speaking, however, there are many who consider “modern times” to have begun in 1492, with expansion into the New World, or at the very latest, the 17th century and dawning Age of Reason. So Bob’s got quite a bit of temporal latitude to work with. Given the fascination with over-interpreting every scintilla of Dylan’s thought and art, it seems inevitable that critics will pick apart the deeper meaning (ironic, Chaplinesque or otherwise) behind the title and mine the lyrical content for any useable nugget of relevance buried within the whimsically enigmatic artist’s songs.

Doing so would be a disservice to an elegant, refreshingly direct work (no fussy overdubs allowed here) that plays like little more than a jukebox of the 65-year-old Dylan’s mind. Superficially, Modern Times is all about the blues, be it swinging, talking, up-tempo, meditative or rockin’. Dylan achieves a wonderful cohesiveness by working out a serious blues jones over the course of these ten lengthy -- at times too lengthy -- tracks. Backed by his proven touring band, Dylan refines the approach taken on 2001’s Love and Theft, self-producing a (tad too) clean, mostly studio-trickery-free album that emphasizes lyrical idiom over excessive solos or rambling jams. This is vintage Dylan: The word is law, and he certainly isn’t at a loss for uniquely appealing utterances. (“I’m sweatin’ blood / You got a face that begs for love,” he smoothly croons on “Spirit on the Water.”)

The onomatopoetic “Rollin' and Tumblin'” possesses a bounce and spit, a looseness of form and infectious groove that stand out as an isolated peak of welcome energy. This one’s destined to be a concert favorite. “The Levee's Gonna Break,” which can’t help but beg Katrina-disaster corollaries, and the peppy opener “Thunder on the Mountain” help bolster the tempo of an otherwise reserved set. “Spirit on the Water” is a slow, swinging number that closes with some nice harmonica. “Beyond The Horizon” swings in a ballroom-dancing kind of way, eliciting images of circular spots of light bobbing across the floor of a cavernous hall.

The big three tracks on Modern Times -- the grimly reflective “When the Deal Goes Down,” the blue-collar ode “Workingman's Blues #2” and the cryptic, wannabe-epic closer “Ain't Talkin'” -- are the likeliest to be championed by devotees for entry into the canon of Major Dylan Songs. None quite reach the level of the master songwriter’s finest work, but all capably prove, some four decades into the game, that Dylan still knows how to coax effective lines from what could easily be, at this juncture, a hackneyed, plug-and-play formula.

If Modern Times is (as the promotional machine behind the album claims) the closing work in a loose trilogy that began with 1997’s overrated Time Out of Mind, where does it rank and what does it represent? Well, if Time Out of Mind is the weathered, death-obsessed uncle who drinks too much and broods over things unchangeable and distant, and Love and Theft is the rakish cad gleefully dancing on the edge of the apocalypse, then Times is Theft’s clean-shaven, less-interesting brother, with a bit of schooling under his belt and a professional spit-and-polish finish.

Regardless, Dylan sounds like he’s having a grand old time, serious-minded or not. This is a man thankful to still be doing what he loves. Is he coasting, creatively speaking? Sure. But at least he’s doing so in a classy yacht, as opposed to a leaking skiff. With nothing left to prove and the anger of youth long since dissipated, a little indulgence can be forgiven. Every major artist’s dotage should be so productive and rewarding.

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