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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Bob Dylan: Modern Times


1) Thunder On The Mountain; 2) Spirit On The Water; 3) Rollin' And Tumblin'; 4) When The Deal Goes Down; 5) Someday Baby; 6) Workingman's Blues #2; 7) Beyond The Horizon; 8) Nettie Moore; 9) The Levee's Gonna Break; 10) Ain't Talkin'.

Nothing more or less than Love And Theft, Vol. 2, and by now, we should have already gotten the idea of what the title meant (for Dylan, that is): he loves those old blues tunes so much that he is only too happy to steal them, and not feel guilty about it. Then again, if Muddy Waters in the 1950s put his name on a song that he clearly did not write, why couldn't Bob Dylan do the same fifty years later? From that point of view, this album's title is a condescending joke — you sort of expect to turn the CD over and find the first part of the title on the back cover: This Is What I Think Of Your..., yes, and maybe the finger as well. Because these days, you're not expected to infringe on copyright. In the old days of folk tradition — now that's a different story. These days, «all copyrights reserved for that nameless old guy in the backwoods and his progeny».

Anyway, there we have it: ten more songs in Ye Olde Style, same topics, same cracked voice, same «Jack Frost» production style. The backing band has evolved (only Tony Garnier on bass re­mains over from the Love And Theft sessions), but the sonic essentials remain completely the same. In fact, much as I hate to admit it, the album as a whole is not even deserving of an indivi­dual review. On the whole, the songs roll along a little smoother this time, with fewer «rocking» moments and respectively more «soft blues-rock», but it takes a long time to figure out the subtle differences, and even if there are any, they seem accidental. It's not as if Bob finally lost his potential to rock out — he just happened to be in the mood for quieter guitars and drums.

And it's not as if I'm complaining, because the sound remains efficient. The upbeat, «soft-rock­ing» grooves now take on a J. J. Cale not-give-a-damn aura about them: ʽThunder On The Moun­tainʼ and ʽThe Levee's Gonna Breakʼ both make reference to natural disasters, but the attitude of the protagonist is like, «I'm 66 years old already, what do I care about the whole world going down in flames?», and the rest of the band sounds correspondingly hip and nonchalant, churning the groove out like a biorobot, only occasionally deviating for a muffled guitar solo. Naturally, once you hear "if it keeps on rainin', levee's gonna break", you will be remembering Led Zeppelin (rather than Memphis Minnie, unless you're a seasoned blues snob), and the apocalyptic hysterics of Page and Plant will look tremendously fussy and vain next to this cool-calm-collected view on the turbulent side of life.

Clearly, it is the «coolness» of it all, this effortless transition to a state in which basic emotion is completely suppressed, that attracted critics and fans alike to this «bronze age renaissance» in Dylan's career. On the more officially sentimental, jazzier numbers Bob seems to get accordingly more sentimental and tender (ʽSpirit On The Waterʼ), but exactly how «sincere» is that sentimen­tality? It might be just another tip of the hat to the trappings of a goneby era. ʽWorkingman's Blues #2ʼ, a stately piece of soul-blues, formally written from the point of view of a member of the «proletariat», whatever that word might mean today, is a piece of sad romance that a Bruce Springsteen could easily fill up with genuine affection — in Bob's current rendition it sounds a little hollow and formalistic. But that is the point — to deliver all these messages the way they are delivered, in a detached, introvert manner. It helps to play these songs interspersed with stuff from Highway 61 Revisited: where Bob once used to sound like he was hurling bolts of light­ning at his listeners, now he sounds as if he is directing all the singing right inside his own guts.

The last song on the album, ʽAin't Talkin'ʼ, seems to be a throwback to the vibe of Time Out Of Mind. It is long, dark, pessimistic, it has a naggingly depressing violin part crawling all over it, and its (and the whole album's) last words are, suitably, "the world's end". But even so, compare it with, let's say, ʽShot Of Loveʼ (a suitable comparison, actually, given the wealth of Biblical imagery in ʽAin't Talkin'ʼ), and see the difference — where we once saw the man near-lite­rally pulling out his hair and rolling in the ashes, here is a man completely resigned to his fate. Not at all happy about it, but accepting it as something inevitable. He ain't talkin', just walkin'. If Nick Cave were to sing this song, we'd already be scraping a major percentage of his internal organs off our clothes and faces. Bob and his band just put out the bare facts. No acting, no exaggerating, no self-whipping into frenzy, no trying to change the world through the music, no trying to do anything, in fact. A perfect album for a certified Taoist.

However, although there is no reason to deprive Modern Times of its thumbs up rating, I must say that it sounds overreaching, and that, in particular, I do find the running lengths of most of these songs inadequate — even understanding that Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan, takes orders from no one, and has every right to try my patience in asserting his rights to do whatever he wants. Love And Theft had 12 songs rather than 10, and still ran about five minutes shorter than Modern Times, and that was a good balance; here, unless you really, really, really crave for extra and extra modernist lyrical variations on ancient blues themes (for instance, think that namedropping Alicia Keyes in the context of ʽThunder On The Mountainʼ really works), almost each of these songs could be at least one or two verses shorter without any harm to the business, particularly since there is no development whatsoever happening on any of the songs.

Unless, of course, we are supposed to understand this philosophically — for Bob Dylan, such a silly thing as «time» no longer exists. The end of the world presupposes no need for time, so you cannot even physically complain of having «wasted time» on the extra verses of these songs, be­cause you wouldn't be making much sense. Which, of course, puts the album title in an even more ironic light. Modern times? There are no modern times. They say that Rolling Stone, a magazine that has long since lost touch with true reality, put this record up at No. 204 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. Silly people, not realizing how absurd it must feel for Modern Times to be on that list, when it so clearly belongs on The Divided By Zero Greatest Albums of No Time list instead.

Check "Modern Times" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Modern Times" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. I disagree with your lackluster attitude of this album. It's definitely in the same vein as Love and Theft but Ithink this is a definite improvement both as an album and in terms of overall song quality. It flows better than Love and Theft and Time out of Mind (though the great songs on TOOM are probably better than the best on MT). I personally think he blows this style on Together Through Life and I'm curious to see what you think of that one.

  2. I think you misunderstood, George was positive about the album. It's just that "Love and Theft" introduced a new style for Dylan (and in that way still has an unquestionable advantage over "Modern Times") so there's really not much to talk about this time around. Although, contrary to what George said about L&T, I think the general hype about that one was quite a deserved one, while in case of "Modern Times" most of the reviewers went nuts for no good reason.

  3. I'm glad you acknowledged the name-dropping on Thunder. Unless we are to take it in the spirit of "This is what I think of Alicia Keys...I was making records when her MAMA was a baby, so she's not saying anything new." That would fit the Grumpier Old Blues Man persona. The only worse example of dropping her name was when Jermaine Paul won The Voice and mentioned his association with her twenty or so times.