As I write this review Modern Times gone in at number one on the Billboard charts in the USA – Dylan’s first number one since Desire in 1976. Is it his best album since Desire? Almost certainly not (that accolade would have to go to Slow Train Coming, Oh Mercy or Time Out of Mind), but it does contains enough gems to merit some, but probably not all, of the critical acclaim that been heaped on Dylan’s new record.
Indeed recently it seems that Dylan can do no wrong. He has had a very successful and intriguing autobiography published, possibly the best rock-music documentary ever produced on his life, and become an accomplished radio DJ spinning records that many of us had forgotten had even existed. Of course in between all of this he was touring Europe and the USA extensively with his band. But the news that he was to release his first album since 2001’s Love and Theft excited Bobcats the world over. This was more than a side-project or career retrospective – this was new material from the master songwriter.
Initial reviews of the album have been gushing, despite reviewers having only heard the album once. A Dylan album can takes months and even years to get. I remember not totally understanding 1997’s Time Out of Mind until some months after I had purchased it. It then revealed itself as a work of art comparable to his classic 60s and 70s output, in my opinion. And it was for this reason that I decided to take sometime and listen intensely to Modern Times before putting my thoughts to paper.
In many ways, Modern Times continues where Love and Theft left off. It is a mix of folk, blues, swing, bluesgrass, gospel, rock and roll and rockabilly. As with Love and Theft, it seems to encompass all of the musical inspirations that Dylan touched on at various times throughout his long career. Lyrically, Modern Times is far bleaker than Love and Theft. It appears that the death, violence, decay and corruption that was apparent in Dylan’s 2003 Masked and Anonymous film is also key to the lyrics of his latest release. Perhaps these are Dylan’s feelings on a cynical post- 9/11 world? Or could it be that Dylan is just becoming a grumpy old man? I for one do not wish to put words in Dylan’s mouth, but it seems that the fun-loving rock and roll star who was asking women to “jump into his wagon” and “throw [their] panties overboard” has been replaced by a more introspective Dylan who feels that there “Ain’t nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine”.
There are four standout tracks to Modern Times. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’, ‘Workingman’s Blues #2′, ‘Nettie Moore’ and ‘Ain’t Talkin” are all tracks that could compete for a slot on any potential best-of compilation. These are songs that do Dylan justice and are proof that Dylan is still a relevant and talented songwriter. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ starts the record off as a rollocking blues number which musically is vaguely reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’. The lyrics flow easily from Dylan’s tongue and it feels that he’s more relaxed in his singing than on other songs on the album. It is a great opener to the album and a song that should transpose well to live performances.
‘Workingman’s Blues #2′ is my favourite song on the album. Here Dylan starts off with what appears to be a lament for the working class which by the end of the song seems to have become a mixed up mourning for a lost love, or for a society which no longer exists. Whatever the theme of the song, it is a perfect example of Dylan’s use of vocabulary creating mood. Not many musicians can claim to have this skill, here Dylan creates atmosphere through the words which when accompanied by a restrained and beautiful musical arrangement, lead to a song that is deeply emotional and moving. This even goes down to how Dylan sings certain words, his vocal mannerisms and stresses are at times a joy to behold in this song (just listen to the way he sings the word ‘slash’ – it means so much more than it does on paper!). In my opinion this is perhaps one of Dylan’s greatest songs. It’s a song that is uplifting and melancholic all at the same time and one that I have yet to tire of. I’ve listened to this at least once a day since I received a leaked copy of Modern Times two and a half weeks ago and I still find it a beautiful song that I never want to end. Most definitely the highlight of the album, and possibly of Dylan’s recording career over the last ten years.
‘Nettie Moore’ uses a sparse arrangement and is apparently inspired by a 19th century Irish ballad of the same name (I’ve not heard this song so cannot comment). A loud, repetitious drumbeat punctuates this song and almost feels like it’s the song’s heartbeat, while the words are delivered at a slow talkin’ blues pace. Again, as with Dylan’s other more recent work, themes are hard to pin down but it feels as if the song is the protagonist’s march through the latter stages of life, musing on love, fidelity and the mysteries of the human heart in a world gone wrong:
“Oh, I miss you, Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’r
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then, and ever shall
But there’s no one here left to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes”
The final song on the record, ‘Ain’t Talkin” feels like a reprise of the moods created on Time Out of Mind. Described by Colombia’s PR machine as a ‘swamp blues’, it creates an uneasy, overwhelming and humid atmosphere almost immediately. The lyrics seem to present Dylan at his most bleak and, to be frank, evil. This isn’t the loving man who is present on some of the other songs on the album, this is the stalker, the murderer, the grim reaper, the merchant of doom delivering lines which sound like they’re from the darkest depths of Dylan’s soul:
“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”
The song has a haunting and almost hypnotic effect, its riches are still revealing themselves to me on each listen. Like so many of Dylan’s songs, I feel that this will be a song that will continue to astound over the months to come. It is definitely the darkest song to have ever closed a Dylan album.
Elsewhere, ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ has a great blues lick that feels like it may have been lifted from an old blues song (I’m not sure, so please don’t quote me on that). The song grooves along at a pace and will almost certainly be a great live song (especially if Dylan returned to playing guitar on stage). ‘Someday Baby’ is the song that is used on the iTunes advert for Modern Times and again is a great blues song number. It seems to get better on every listen, although it has yet to reach the heights of some of the other songs mentioned above. ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ is the song that has been chosen for the promo video which features Hollywood starlet Scarlett Johansson. This song seems to be Dylan speaking to either a woman, a number of women or even a mythologised version of a woman (as this is Dylan, we’ll never know!) and has a tender and almost nostalgic feel to it. It is another slow burner, and one which I initially dismissed but it seems to be revealing more of its beauty as the days go by.
However, there are some songs which do little for me. His foray into “swing” or “crooner” music on Love and Theft included ‘Bye and Bye’ and ‘Moonlight’ and he has continued with ‘Spirit on the Water’ and ‘Beyond the Horizon’. It’s not that they are necessarily bad songs, they just seem to do little for me and they are definitely the weaker material on the album. Finally, ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ sounds like ‘Summerdays’ (from Love and Theft) only without the humour. An up-tempo blues song but which, to be honest, we could have done without.
Dylan has yet again delivered an excellent album and one that is worthy of its number one spot. However, it has yet in my mind to obtain that legendary status that many critics seem to have bestowed upon it. There are some excellent songs such as ‘Ain’t Talkin’ and ‘Nettie Moore’ and it can be argued that ‘Workingman’s Blues #2′ is the best Dylan song of recent times but three songs does not qualify an album for legendary status. However, as with many of Dylan’s songs it may still be too early to come to a conclusion on the quality on display. These songs are still revealing themselves both musically and lyrically to my ears and Dylan has yet again delivered a rich listening experience for those willing to give the album some time. His obsession with attempting to sounding like a Frank Sinatra with a 60-a-day Marlboro habit aside, Modern Times is among his best recent albums and certainly one of the best and most rewarding albums of 2006.