Bob Dylan has been recording music since the release of his self-titled debut in 1962, the latest being Modern Times, his 31st studio record, created with his road band amid his “Never Ending Tour.” As with any Dylan release, you assign a place in the pantheon after a few listens. Is it marginal, as with some of the place-holding albums of the ’70s and ’80s, or is it magnificent, in a league with Blonde on Blonde or Blood on the Tracks?
Well, neither. Modern Times seems to be a continuation of 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft — the Dylanologists of the ‘net have already begun calling them a trilogy — and it seems to cement a particular vision of Dylan: that he sees himself as a continuation or embodiment of the American muse. He uses tried-and-true standards as the musical medium, a common ground of which he is simply the latest to borrow. Take “Rollin and Tumblin’,” a blues standard believed penned by one Phineas Newborn in the ’20s, a hit for Muddy Waters in the ’50s, and now a template for Bob Dylan, although it would be hard to imagine the earlier versions containing the lines:
“I got troubles so hard, I can’t stand the strain/ Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains”
Dylan reaches into the Muddy Waters songbook for another tune, “Trouble No More” (although Bob calls it “Someday Baby”), borrows Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks” and even tosses a nod to the great Merle Haggard with “Workingman’s Blues #2.” It is this tradition, the reworking of song, that keeps music connected to the present — and the future. Can anyone imagine modern music if the Byrds hadn’t taken Dylans “Mr. Tambourine Man” in 1965, and added a “jingle jangle” electric guitar to it? No R.E.M., for one.
Musically, Modern Times is a rather low-key affair, loping along at mid to slow tempos, “Rolling and Tumblin'” being a notable exception. Unlike “Love Sick” or “Cold Irons Bound” on Time Out of Mind — two songs that can scare the crap out of you without Dylan croaking out a word — Modern Times rather ambles from moment to moment , never in a rush.
But you don’t listen to Bob Dylan for the music, ultimately. You listen to him for truths. Confirmations. Questions. Modern Times gives you all that in its first song, “Thunder on the Mountain,” from its quixotic reference to R+B singer Alicia Keys to the simple acknowledgement that again, the times they are a changing:
“Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today”
“Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be/ Mean old twister bearing down on me/ All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town/ Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down”
The conspiratorial among us, such as myself, might see a reference to Condi Rice and shoe shopping while the “mean old twister” of Katrina was bearing down. Who knows for sure?
If you bought this record early enough you got a nifty t-shirt with a quote on the back from “Workingman’s Blues #2”:
“You can hang back or fight your best on the frontline”
The song continues with:
“Well, they burned my barn, and they stole my horse/ I can’t save a dime/ I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced/ Into a life of continual crime/ I can see for myself that the sun is sinking/ How I wish you were here to see/ Tell me now, am I wrong in thinking/ That you have forgotten me?”
Is Dylan addressing a past love here? Or a neglectful government? As with the best of his work, any and all explanations will ultimately fall short. But Modern Times seems to have a feeling of confrontation to it, a fighting back against dark times, robber barons and demagogues, as in “Ain’t Talkin'”:
“Now I’m all worn down by weeping/ My eyes are filled with tears, my lips are dry/ If I catch my opponents ever sleeping/ I’ll just slaughter ’em where they lie”
Who are Dylan’s opponents, and why do they deserve such a cruel fate? We will never know. We only know our own — and in the end, that is the point of Modern Times.
For an extended version of this review with discussion, check out the podcast at Serious Indie Cred, episode 16.
Bob Dylan: bobdylan.com