The Music Box's #1 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2006, Volume 13, #9
Written by John Metzger
Itís a strange thing to consider, but after spending decades avoiding the media, Bob Dylan suddenly has opted to embrace it. In the past few years, he has appeared in television commercials, granted interviews, and become the host of a weekly satellite radio program. He also has published the first installment of his autobiography; he was the subject of an expansive PBS documentary by Martin Scorsese; his music soon will be featured in a Broadway play; and six actors (Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Julianne Moore, Heath Ledger, and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are slated to portray him in the upcoming biopic Iím Not There. Yet, for all of the exposure that he has received of late, he remains an enigma, and his latest effort Modern Times is a contemporary classic that only enhances his mysterious aura.
Dylanís recent resurgence seemingly began in 1997 when, shortly after being hospitalized with pericarditis, he issued Time Out of Mind, a brilliant work that presciently spoke to his own brush with mortality. In crafting his follow-up effort Love and Theft ó which, released on September 11, 2001, featured lyrics that were eerily prophetic ó Dylan jettisoned Daniel Lanoisí dark, swirling atmospherics to reveal the timeless blues, country, and jazz refrains that initially inspired him. Herein lies the first perplexing factor about his latest endeavor: For a guy who has spent his career differentiating each album from its predecessor, Dylan appears to have gone out of his way to make certain that Modern Times is a companion not only to Love and Theft but also to his legendary output from the í60s.
With minor modifications, Dylan pilfers both the traditional-turned-Muddy Waters gem Rolliní and Tumbliní as well as the Sleepy John Estes-by-way-of-Lightniní Hopkins nugget Someday Baby. Similarly, he twists Memphis Minnieís When the Levee Breaks into his own statement about the Hurricane Katrina debacle. When he isnít busy swiping music directly, Dylan harvests the scraps of his memory, borrowing whatever past bits of pop culture that he can find that are suited best to his needs. The title of When the Deal Goes Down alludes to a song by the Mississippi Sheiks, while its opening line immediately brings to mind Cole Porterís In the Still of the Night. Elsewhere, Spirit on the Water conjures Nina Simoneís I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl, and Thunder on the Mountain strips bare his own Highway 61 Revisited in such a way as to cast it back in time where it can cross paths with Chuck Berry and early electric, urban blues. In effect, Modern Times presents a refined rendition of the approach that Dylan took with Love and Theft, and his backing band brings the sort of sophistication and urgency to its subtle shadings and loose grooves that is necessary for making the outing work.
In shaping his public persona, Dylan, of course, has become a master at misdirection, and throughout Modern Times, he applies his sleight of hand technique to his lyrics. At first glance, Spirit on the Water is a seductive love song, but as it progresses, it becomes apparent that Dylan is pining for reconciliation in a troubled relationship that he canít seem to leave behind. Likewise, the venom that lurks inside Someday Baby builds upon the apocalyptic air that not only pervades the opening Thunder on the Mountain, but also resurfaces with increasing regularity as the set winds toward its inevitable conclusion, and thus it provides a seamless segue into the albumís most direct track Workingmanís Blues #2. His personal state of the union address, this latter song serves as the collectionís Rosetta tone by bringing its title into sharp relief.
In 1936, Charlie Chaplinís slapstick comedy Modern Times marked the end of the silent film era, and Chaplin essentially used a love story as the basis for addressing Americaís social, political, and economic conditions as well to reflect upon the dehumanizing aspects of an increasingly automated existence. For its revival in the í50s, the movieís central theme was given lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons ó "Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile, even though itís breaking" ó and Dylan has employed all of these concepts as the template for his work. His Modern Times is equally cinematic and important, and throughout the collection, he cryptically echoes Chaplinís sentiments via his own heartfelt allegories. Despite the trials and tribulations that his characters have endured, connection to one another as well as to a higher power is what they ultimately seek. Thereís a genuine yearning for love that is tucked inside Workingmanís Blues #2, and no matter how bad the relationships become, there also is a strong desire to allow them to perpetuate. "You think Iím over the hill/You think Iím past my prime/Let me see what youíve got/We can have a whoppiní good time," Dylan coyly sings in Spirit on the Water, taking a stab at his critics while trying to win back a former flame who wasnít exactly faithful.
Not surprisingly, as he ruminates upon the age-old issues of life, death, love, and work, Dylan offers few answers to the questions that he raises. Instead, he is content merely to point out the darkness that has settled upon the world, and in that regard, Ainít Talkiní, the final track on Modern Times, provides a great deal to ponder. Its mournful arrangement, along with its foreboding lyrics, magnifies the notion that contemporary societyís problems have a lot to do with the spiritual vacuity that has been fostered by technological innovation. With the resulting disintegration of civility, peace has given way to never-ending war, and vengeance and personal self-interest increasingly have begun to trump the betterment of the community at large. These philosophical streams of thought arenít new, of course, but although his appropriations are blatant, Dylan clearly has made them his own by summarizing 70 years of history with a single, 60-minute masterpiece.
49th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance
49th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album
Of Further Interest...
Modern Times is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box