Bob Dylan's 'Modern Times'
That title is loaded with mischievous irony. 'Modern Times', like 'Love and Theft' before it, is very self-consciously unconcerned with the contemporary musical landscape. With its 30s and 40s swing croons and rockabilly stompers, it's a deliciously entertaining refashioning of great American musical traditions. Given its coupling of wry, frequently very funny blues pieces with hauntingly evocative major songs, it's easy to see why Columbia Records are presenting it as the conclusion of a great trilogy that began in 1997 with 'Time Out Of Mind'. To understand latter-day Dylan, however, it's necessary to go back a bit further. After the creative low of 'Under The Red Sky' in 1990, Dylan was crippled by writers' block, and retreated into a songbook of folk and blues standards with two excellent albums of reinterpretations, 1992's 'Good As I Been To You' and 'World Gone Wrong' the following year. It is this exuming of his earliest inspirations that seems to have inspired pretty much everything he has recorded since, from 'Time Out Of Mind' and its spidery intimations of mortality, to Love And Theft's gleeful ransacking of the past. Though he was much lambasted for those albums at the time, seen from the vantage point of hindsight, they make perfect sense. It's therefore also not hard to appreciate why the unconverted will probably remain nonplussed by an album like 'Modern Times', not least because of the profound tedium of much of the huge volume of writing about Dylan these days. His most anticipated album since Blood On The Tracks, another masterpiece, yadda, yadda, yawn, yawn....Many of the reviews seem so preoccupied with the mythical influence of Dylan himself that they've failed to engage much with the album.
The bulk of 'Modern Times' is entirely amiable and unassuming, mostly 12 bar blues compositions played with unforced clarity and enthusiasm by his regular touring band. The crisp guitars of Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman duel with the vigour and dynamism of Scotty Moore and Carl Perkins, whilst Tony Garnier's solid upright bass pulse and George Receli's expressive drumming, mostly with brushes, are superb throughout. At its worst, there's some bizarrely cheesy cabaret-style crooning on 'Beyond The Horizon', which would be a lightweight song from a much lesser artist. At the better end, there's the gently rollicking opener 'Thunder On The Mountain', one of many songs featuring Dylan's excellent piano playing (considerably more nuanced and subtle than it was in the days of 'New Morning') and the massively entertaining 'Someday Baby'. Here, the words roll and tumble from Dylan's cracked voice with controlled relish.
There are some endearing rewrites of old standards. Indeed, the bulk of 'Modern Times' is a collection of references to a variety of source material, and it becomes easy to see why the archivist Dylan is now presenting an old time radio show, perhaps exactly the sort of programme Matt Ward was lamenting the loss of on his 'Transistor Radio' album from last year. 'Rollin' and Tumblin' doesn't veer too far away from its Muddy Waters template, and 'The Levee's Gonna Break' will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Memphis Minnie or Led Zeppelin. Even the much more substantial 'Nettie Moore' is in fact directly inspired by a nineteenth century American folk song of the same name. He even references Nina Simone in a particularly sly verse during 'Spirit On The Water': 'They brag about your sugar/Brag about it all over town/Put some sugar in my bowl/I feel like layin' down'.
Lyrically, he seems to be deploying similar deliriously funny wordplay to that used on the best parts of 'Love and Theft'. There are some superb moments, right from the outset. The opening verse of 'Thunder In The Mountain' proclaims 'Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow/Well there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go'. Elsewhere, the song features some of his most inventive rhyming couplets - 'I've been sittin' studying the art of love/I think it will fit me like a glove' or, even better, 'Gonna recruit me an army, some real tough sons of bitches/I'll recruit my army from the orphanages/I been to St. Herman's Church, said my religious vows/ I've sucked the milk from a thouuuuussssand cowwwwwws!'. There are again delicious references to the twilight years ('you think I'm over the hill/You think I'm past my prime/Let me see what you got/We can have a whoppin' good time'), reflective ruminations on regret ('I laugh and I cry, and I'm haunted by/Things I never meant or wished to say') or some blackly funny confessions ('some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains!' or, much better, 'I want to be with you in Paradise/And it seems so unfair/I can't go back to paradise no more/...I killed a man back there!').
Amidst all of this riotous worplay, many claim that there it's not possible to detect much of the preoccupation with mortality and weariness that characterised 'Time Out Of Mind'. This isn't quite true. 'When The Deal Goes Down' comes with a lot of waltz, more than a hint of schmaltz, and some slightly clunky lyrics that echo 'Every Grain Of Sand' in their references to Biblical texts and psalms. Somehow, despite all this, it's quietly moving, perhaps because of the inference that 'the deal' in question is dying and the repeated refrain of 'I'll be with you when the deal goes down' is the ultimate pledge. There's also a sense of finality pervading in two of the album's best tracks, the love lament 'Nettie Moore' where 'the world has gone black before my eyes' and the epic finale 'Ain't Talkin', with its series of barren, apocalyptic landscapes.
It is these tracks, plus one other ('Workingman's Blues #2') that will ultimately secure this album's reputation within the Dylan canon (and certainly not the inspid 'Beyond The Horizon', where even the most avid Dylan fan may have to reach for the skip button). 'Ain't Talkin' is a close relation of 'Highlands', the 17 minute closer of 'Time Out Of Mind', although at just nine verses and almost the same number of minutes, it's a good deal more concise. Its tormented, existential journey is composed brilliantly (even though the central image of the 'mystic garden' is perhaps a bit icky), particularly as it gathers intensity towards the end ('the sufferin' is unending, Every nook and cranny has its tears/I'm not playing, I'm not pretending/I'm not nursin' any superfluous fears'). It's also musically fasninating, with eerie guitar arpeggios set against multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron's mournful violin. 'Nettie Moore' is a song in the grand folk tradition, brilliantly arranged, with neat contrast between crisply phrased vocals in the verse, and a more langorous, explicitly romantic chorus.
'Workingman's Blues #2', with both title and theme cribbed from Merle Haggard, is a thornier song. It will certainly be claimed by those still besotted with protest-era Dylan as a conscious return to leftist roots, not least because of some vaguely Marxist lyrics ('the buying power of the proletariat's gone down/money's gettin' shallow and weak' or 'they say low wage is our reality, if we want to compete abroad'). I suspect, particularly given Dylan's long standing reluctance to espouse any specific particular political creed, that the concerns here are more personal than political, especially when the lyric is taken as a whole. Either way, it's one of the most brilliantly sustained lyrics in the latterday Dylan catalogue, with a lingering melody and some stately, elegant playing from the band (again including Dylan's surprisingly intricate piano). It has some truly majestic lines, and my favourite verse on the whole album: 'My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf/Come sit down on my knee/You are dearer to me than myself/As you yourself can see/While I'm listening to the steel rails-a-hum/Got both eyes tight shut/Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from/Creeping its way inside my gut'). As ever, the delivery of this brilliantly manipulated language enhances its impact. Many fans will note that this is the first time Dylan has deployed the dreaded 'upsinging' device on a studio album. Whilst it has long been the achilles heel of his live shows, here it is deployed with sensitivity and conscious control - the little flick up at the end of some of the lines adding emphasis.
'Modern Times' perhaps suffers a little from predictability, given how well it sits with its immediate predecessors. As Michael Gray has observed in his excellent 'Song and Dance Man' book, it's actually very rare that Dylan offers anything as audience-pleasing or as straightforward as a sequel or follow-up. There's very little evidence that Dylan has kept up with any contemporary trends, as his ranting interview with Rolling Stone magazine's Jonathan Lethem more than suggested (Dylan was fiery in his denunciation of modern production techniques and claimed there had been no decent records made in the last 20 years). Perhaps that's why the strange Alicia Keys lyric stands out so much on 'Thunder On The Mountain' - 'I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying/When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line/I was wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be/I looked for her even clear through Tennessee'. It's brilliantly unexpected. For the most part though, 'Modern Times' presents Dylan as more plunderer than pioneer, but it's no less enthralling for that. It's worth remembering that this is a writer who has always bent source material to his own wildly inventive purposes, and in reconnecting with the American songbook, he has ironically made himself relevant again. In his wilderness days in the 80s, Dylan seemed very conscious of the need to update and modernise, hence perhaps the deployment of Arthur Baker to produce 'Empire Burlesque' or the use of Sly and Robbie as rhythm section on 'Infidels'. Now, abandoning such surface concerns, he has recovered his very core, becoming in essence a travelling minstrel singer - full of wit and wisdom, but gradually shedding the star's mystique.