How does a self-confessed Dylan fanatic go about providing an objective overview of His Bobness's new album? In all honesty, I'm not sure it's truly possible. When one has lived with a passion for Dylan and his music for 30 years, objectivity doesn't really come into it. Even Bob's detractors have to acknowledge the enormous impact he has had on the last 40 plus years of popular culture and he has once again established his 'legend' status following the success of the No Direction Home film and the first part of his autobiographical odyssey, Chronicles. On top of this, since 1997, the renaissance in Dylan's musical output has, to certain ears, proved to be his ultimate triumph. Who could have predicted, back in the dark days of the mid-80's when recording disasters were followed by cinematic calamity, that we could talk about Bob so positively today? So, what about Modern Times? I'm coming to that but, first, a brief 'history' lesson.
By the end of the 80's it seemed as though Dylan was lost and it would only be a matter of time before he became a 'has-been' with only his 60's legacy to truly maintain his legend. He has revealed how he no longer felt able to write. He felt he had lost touch with whatever creative impulse once propelled him through the artistic stratoshere. At his lowest point, following truly terrible albums like Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, Dylan linked up with The Grateful Dead in what seemed, at the time, a desparate attempt the revive memories of his glory years. On the surface, Dylan and The Dead seems like a totally incongruous pairing. Dylan was very much 'anti-hippy' in the late 60's; rejecting the 'counter-culture' for the 'conservative' lifestyle and artistic expression of life in the Catskills with The Band and his family. However, The Dead themselves had always been in touch with the roots of the music and Dylan had connected artistically with Jerry Garcia. It must be said that the resulting live album was a complete failure but the tours they did together encouraged Dylan to re-evaluate his songs and rediscover the source from which they sprang. Dylan ended the decade on a real high-note with the Oh, Mercy album and there was much optimism amongst his fans for a bright new future. Inevitably, things didn't quite work out as simply as that and Dylan began the 90's with the mediocrity that was Under The Red Sky. It was obvious that the muse had not yet made its full return to the soul of the poet. Seemingly in an artistic quagmire, Dylan turned again to the very source of his creation: the blues and folk songs of North America and Britain. In short succession he released the solo acoustic albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. All the songs on both of these records are 'trad. arr.' but Dylan sounds completely inspired on tracks like 'Black Jack Davy' and Blind Willie McTell's 'Broke Down Engine'. After this return to his roots, there was another long gap before the release of Dylan's great return to form with Time Out Of Mind. In the meantime, he continued his 'Never Ending Tour', reworking his classic material and introducing a large number of folk and blues material to the shows. On Time Out Of Mind Dylan reforges American 'roots' music to make something all his own: an other-worldly brew of intimations of mortality and fire and brimstone. In 2001, he continued to look back with Love & Theft, adding belly-laughs and 1930's style shuffles for good measure. His popularity and crediblity took a definite up-swing.
Finally, we come to Modern Times. It has been five years since any substantial new material has emergrd from Bob's pen. Ironically, his profile has rarely been higher and he's STILL on the road. Superficially, Modern Times carries on where he left off with Love & Theft. We find rockabilly rambles and blues boogaloos; there are Hoagy Carmichael style tunes; there are songs with roots deep in the North American soil. The album opens with the literal rumble of 'Thunder On The Mountain', an up-beat, bluesy number that weirdly name-checks soul singer Alicia Keys. Bob has been looking for 'Aleesha Keeeys' even 'clear through Tennessee'. Either Dylan is just a dirty old man or Alicia Keys symbolises something Bob is trying to find in the spirit of America. I wouldn't bet against the former! The song is peppered with oblique references to the state we are in and the fact that the end times could be with us soon. Even though Bob rarely bangs the Bible in any obvious way these days, his mind is never far from themes of judgement and salvation or even damnation (in 'Rollin' and Tumblin' he warns some undefined group of people how they are going to 'burn'). If the meaning of 'Thunder On The Mountain' is somewhat obscure, Dylan manages to squeeze some brilliant lines into the song. At one point the genius manages to rhyme 'sons of bitches' with 'orphanages'. Yes, he still has poetic daring in spades. The second track, 'Spirit On The Water' illustrates some of the more problematic aspects of the album. This where Dylan and his, more or less adequate, touring band get into their Hoagy Carmichael mode with a seemingly hopeless plea for requited love. The song and arrangement are fine enough but it just goes on for far too long! A little editing would have been more than welcome. Dylan also adds a very poor harmonica solo that perfectly illustrates why he'll never be considered a rival for Little Walter or Larry Adler!
The album then moves up a gear with 'Rollin' and Tumblin''. The song is credited to Dylan and he certainly suppiles a host of new lyrics but it's really the old Muddy Waters nugget dressed up in fancy clothes. 'Love & Theft', Bob? The song itself is great and perfomed with some gusto. It must be said that Dylan's singing is the best it's been for a long time. Of course, this is a voice you either love or hate but, for me, his vocal chords have reached a point of indefinable, wrecked beauty that perfectly matches the mood of the songs. On 'When The Deal Goes Down', the ache and loving tiredness in the lyric is expressed utterly by Dylan's delivery. A couple of the other songs are light-weight, but highly likable, R&B rides through the landscape of hardship, disaster (maybe Hurricane Katrina?) and desire but it's the remaining, mid to slow-paced numbers that form the artistic core of Modern Times. The album closes with the epic 'Ain't Talkin'', a tale of a spiritual search for redemption in a lost world. This is 'Old Testament' Dylan. His favourite prophets would seem to be Jeremiah and Isaiah. There's little comfort to be found in a world 'filled with speculation' and people who 'will jump on your misfortune when you're down'. It seems that Dylan finds strength and comfort in the fact that he has stuck to the eternal truths, beyond organised religion and corruption:
'I practice a faith that's long been abandoned,
Ain't no altars on this long and lonsome road'*
(* 'Lonesome Road' was a song recorded in the 1920's by Gene Austin and ripped off by Bob on Love & Theft on the song 'Sugar Baby')
We are all going to hell in a hand cart and we can't say Bob hasn't warned us! For all its doom and gloom, 'Ain't Talkin'' is a triumph and one of the peak moments on the album.
The two other superb tracks are 'Nettie Moore' and 'Workingman's Blues #2'. The eponymous Nettie is a lost love who appears to dwell in the far distant past of American history. There is a Civil War period folk song with same title. Perhaps this is the Nettie Moore who Bob misses so much? Makes a change from Alicia Keys, I suppose! Again, the world has gone wrong and the narrator can only be redemed by Nettie's pure love. The song itself is an interesting mix of basic, pedestrian drumbeat through the verse, with a smart time signature change incorporated between the first and second line. Then the chorus opens up like a flower as Bob tells us how much he mises Nettie. Then, at the heart of the album (track number 6) lies a true modern day Dylan classic. 'Workingman's Blues #2' (the first song with this title was recorded by Merle Haggard) is a hymn to the dignity of the working class in the face of neo-conservative economic repression. Has Bob gone back to protest song? Well, not quite. Dylan stopped 'finger-pointing' a long time ago and his art is now far too subtle to fall for such devices. What he DOES do is illustrate the plight of ordinary people with verses that tell of competition from from foriegn markets that force wages down; steel rails that hum as a reminder of the days of the Great Depression and the poor riding the frieght trains and the ravages of a political system that cares little for the life of the avarage man. All this is relayed via a beautiful, simple melody that matches the proud stance of the down-trodden people. If this seems far fetched, listen for yourself.
So, in some ways Modern Times does carry on where Love & Theft left off but still has a sound and feel of its own. There is a greater sense of impending doom here, which takes us back to Time Out Of Mind but this is also matched by a greater generosity of spirit in the songs themselves. The album title itself, whilst proclaiming something about the 'here and now' also seems to suggest that some truths are universal for every age and it's time to discover these things for ourselves. To bring things down to a more prosaic level, it's a very good Dylan album. It's not perfect and Dylan relies heavily on past musical forms these days but Modern Times is a fine achievement.