You don’t so much listen to a Bob Dylan album as you digest it — one savory bite at a time. So rushing out a review of Modern Times — Dylan’s first new recording in five years, and, after a couple weeks on the shelves, his first Number One in 30 years — would have been tough for this reviewer. For each subsequent spin of this shiny new disc unveils a different layer, a divergent thread, a novel reason to appreciate the scraggily, ragged voice and hippity hop, ragtime rhythms that incessantly propel Dylan’s music.
Calling it a follow-up to 2001’s Grammy-winning Love And Theft is much more accurate than calling it the third in a trilogy of brilliant albums, starting with the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind from 1997 — although both could be arguably true. That’s a lot to live up to, but Dylan in his own beatific way doesn’t approach music making in that manner. He dons the hat of singer, guitarist, composer, band leader, song-and-dance-man, even producer (in the guise of one “Jack Frost”), and does it whichever way it comes to him. The rigid lines and pencil moustache may be dead giveaways, but Dylan grunts his way through 10 luminous blue-collar tales, draped in cryptic, aching, apocalyptic imagery.
The Calico cascade of “Thunder On The Mountain” finds the maestro looking for Alicia Keyes (!) and redemption in a ravaged world. The path opens up wide as the yesteryear sweetness of “Spirit on the Water” pushes forth steadily for a little over eight minutes, rolling and tumbling into the 50s-style rockabilly of “Rollin’And Tumblin’.” At this point, Dylan harnesses the momentum and maneuvers it for all its worth. But not before for easing back on the throttle for “When The Deal Goes Down,” a sentimental confessional, foretelling an uncertain future. Then he settles in pleasant-like for the country-blues of “Someday Baby” and “Workingman’s Blues #2.”
The true grit of Modern Times comes through on “Nettie Moore,” perfectly Dylanesque in its vivid portrayal of struggle, loss, and unrequited love. But after the prophetic strains of “The Levee’s Gonna Break” fade aimlessly into the background, “Ain’t Talkin,” at almost nine minutes, walks the earth in turmoil, “eatin' hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town,” but not “nursin' any superfluous fears.” Dylan, strolling through “a mystic garden,” submits to his salvation “in the last outback at the world's end.” It makes you wonder if the singer, approaching the sunset of his life, has abandoned the idealism of the 60s for the reality of the 21st century. Even so, as much as modern times may be taking us away from the romantic revelations of visionaries like Bob Dylan, the bard isn't quite ready to exit the off-ramp. Which makes one take comfort in the hope that Dylan will still be around with a life preserver of music when the deal finally does go down.
~ Shawn Perry