Rated | Alphabetical
| Highest Rated 2006
Bob Dylan: Modern Times
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 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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