Welcome to Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, which sounds about as “modern” as a Model T Ford. The legend's new album has become his first #1 record since 1976’s Desire, to which Modern Times is a kindred spirit; both follow career defining albums which critics hailed as “The Re-birth of Dylan.” Both rely on extended passages of lyrics from the bard, expanding most songs over the five minute mark, giving Dylanologists a rich harvest to scavenge like vultures through for meaning and symbols. With Desire, a younger more energetic Dylan was into pressing issues, and writing mini-movies, in these Modern Times, elder Dylan seems to be writing couplets and stanzas about love and longing, simpler yet succeeding within the current song he is singing, without veiled credos or mystic lore.
Dylan…err…excuse me, Jack Frost’s production on Modern Times places Dylan’s voice directly in the forefront. His lyrics get sassy (“I got the pork chop, she got the pie/she ain’t no angel and neither am I”), wise (“I don't need any guide, I already know the way/Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day”) and current “I was thinking ‘bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying." All these prementioned lyrics appear in the first song, “Thunder on the Mountain”. The rest of Modern Times continues these trends; from “young lazy sluts” charming his brains away to being shocked that someone “Beyond the horizon o'r the treacherous sea” has set aside love for him. These images and turns-of-phrase do not always stay coherent through the tunes, but common feelings pull you along and link the lyrics. The slow clipped vocal delivery on the disk closing “Ain’t Talking” conveys anger and despair simply in the tone, while the tired longing he displays on the sparse “Nettie Moore” infuses the track with importance.
When the discussion inevitably turns to what does Dylan “really mean” with a song, especially his recent endeavors, this Nabokov quote comes to mind: “Although I do not care for the slogan "art for art's sake" ...there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art.” Sure, one can argue “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is in direct response to Katrina and that feelings about September 11th flow throughout, but that would be digging where no excavation is needed.
While his singing/phrasing and lyrics are in fine form, the music backing them suffers. On 2001's Love and Theft, Dylan’s back-up band, was given more sonic freedom and excellent production, laying down musical tracks worthy of the powerful lyrical content, in turn creating a masterpiece. On Modern Times the music is sonically muddled in the background on most numbers. The songs continue the 12 and 8-bar blues, waltz’s and swings that Dylan has used lately, only the production seems rushed. One number where everything comes together is “Workingman’s Blues #2” a piano fronted stroll through middle America and lonely minds, serving as an instant classic. The music swells and dips with Dylan’s singing and stands out from the rest of the album and yet frustrates because one wonders why the care taken on this track isn’t used on all the others?
The Dylan renaissance continues with Modern Times, but of his recent success’s (Time Out Of Mind, Love and Theft) this one seems the most “average Dylan,” which is still leaps and bounds better then most music released this year. And then again how many other world changing artists are still putting out complex work well into their 60’s? Dylan has gracefully become the bluesman he really always was, enjoy the ride in these Modern Times.