What can one say about Bob Dylan’s Modern Times? The release of a Dylan album these days is such a significant event (at least for his admirers) it is difficult to evaluate with objectivity. It’s also difficult not to compare Dylan’s more recent work with his great albums of the 1960s, especially Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, which loom in his career like golden tablets from the mount. Dylan himself, with characteristic immodesty, has expressed amazement that he produced those albums. Such comparisons profit little. Dylan is one of very few singer-songwriters who has continued to evolve throughout his career. In a sense, his last three albums — Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times — have been about that evolutionary process. Modern Times is the most recent moment in a continuum that has run now for 46 years. It is a movement forward that needs to be judged on its own grounds.
Modern Times is no relic and no dying ember. It is a great album. It has five or six truly great songs and four or five good strong songs.
Critical response to Modern Times has been largely positive, even adulatory. Oddly, everyone seems to offer a different assessment of what the album and its songs are about. Some find the album uplifting; others say it is pessimistic. Some say it is about love, while others find it full of rancor and bitterness. Dylan’s lyrics are no help here. They don’t allow easy interpretation. They’re cryptic, allusive, elusive, playful, and full of force and complexity.
Here’s my assessment, in Modern Times Dylan expresses an unwillingness to stop living and feeling and an apprehension of the end of days (personally and more generally). Loss of the things that matter to him is a constant threat, for which he blames various forces and institutions of the outside world. He writes of love, lost love, and desire. Finally, religious imagery, imagery of apocalypse in particular, suffuses these songs. Many of them express a yearning for meaning of one sort or another, for some kind of redemption, along with a haunting skepticism that he will ever find it. Overall, throughout there is a sense of estrangement from the modern world and a pervasive yearning — for love, acceptance, and salvation.
The strongest songs on Modern Times are “Thunder on the Mountain” and “Ain’t Talkin’,” with “When the Deal Goes Down,” “Someday Baby,” “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” and “Nettie Moore” right behind. Musically, “When the Deal Goes Down” isn’t that strong, but the lyrics — among the best on the album — carry and sustain it. Dylan builds “Nettie Moore” on an old slave ballad from the 19th-century; he makes it a song about lost love, nostalgia, loneliness, lost meaning, and the sense of an impending end:
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 left here to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes.
Dylan’s heartfelt performance of “Nettie Moore” is unlike anything else in his repertoire and it recalls some of the more emotional moments on his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is an adaptation of and embellishment on an old tune as sung by such bluesmen as B. B. King and Muddy Waters. At first, the songs I liked the least on Modern Times were the slower-paced ballads — “Spirit on the Water,” “When the Deal Goes Down,” and “Beyond the Horizon” — but with repeated listening they all grew on me. They’re all good, strong songs. There isn’t a weak or average song on the album.
I want to comment on the opening and closing songs of Modern Times, not only because they are the best songs on the album, but because they sum up what the album is about. “Thunder on the Mountain” opens forcefully with images of apocalypse. Two contrary tensions empower this song — the sense life will soon end, and the resolve to continue on.
There’s humor and nonsense as well (“I got the pork chops, she got the pie / She ain't no angel and neither am I”). He expresses no remorse for his life or for what he has done (“I did all I could, I did it right there and then / I've already confessed – no need to confess again”). If you try to read the lyrics of this song in a literal way, they make little sense, which is true of many of Dylan's songs. Instead you have to read them as images, as a series of emotional and intellectual impressions that, when taken together, add up to a vow of fierce resolution in the face of personal extinction.
“Aint’ Talkin’” is the longest, most powerful song on the album. At first it reminded me of the “Highlands” ballad at the end of the 1997 Time out of Mind album. But “Ain’t Talkin’” is a considerably more focused and devastating effort. In it, Dylan assesses the state of the world, and of himself, and finds both lacking. He describes his travels through the world and observes “this weary world of woe / Heart burnin’, just yearnin’ / No one would ever know.” He writes of the suffering in his own life and in the world at large. In “Nettie Moore” he writes, “Everything I've ever known to be right has been proven wrong”. Here he expands that idea:
Well, the whole world is filled with speculation
The whole wide world which people say is round
They will tear your mind away from contemplation
They will jump on your misfortune when you're down.
Though he does not dismiss the possibility of divine aid, he does not expect it either. He begins the song by remarking on his walk “in the mystic garden” of “wounded flowers . . . dangling from the vine.” At the song’s end, he walks in the garden again but notes “There’s no one here, the gardener’s gone . . . heart burnin’, still yearnin’ / In the last outback at the world’s end.” This pessimistic, even bitter conclusion suggests there is no human or supernatural means of relieving the world’s misery.
Dylan sings with a voice some might call ravaged. To me his voice is, most of the time, just right for the songs he composes. Unlike Tom Waits, whose musical eccentricities and wracked vocal cords make appreciating his work a real challenge, Bob Dylan sings with depth and beauty. Not with the beauty of Tony Bennett (a wonderful singer) but with a different sort of beauty and with the same emotional insight and depth and pathos. Dylan’s voice convinces you he understands the words he has written, he has drawn them out of his own experience, he has lived them, and he feels them.
A few have complained the songs of Modern Times go on for too long. The ten songs run slightly over an hour. All but one song are five or six minutes long. The final track, “Ain’t Talkin’,” is over eight minutes. The songs go on as long as they need to. That is, they are just right.
A strong band backs Dylan on Modern Times. The playing is sometimes a bit loose, especially when a few songs seem to stumble to an end. One can imagine Dylan, with that faintly impatient and exasperated look on his lined face, deciding he’s had enough and waving the band to a conclusion. The effect is one of freshness and spontaneity. I’m not sure what instruments Dylan himself is playing, though certainly the harmonica is among them, and probably the guitar.
The sound of the album is excellent: crystal clear and full. Dylan produced it under the name of Jack Frost, as he did also for Love and Theft. The album’s title is a kind of joke, since many of the songs hearken back to traditional forms, especially the blues, and have little in common with trends in popular music. But in their concern with basic human concerns — age, love, corruption, and isolation — they’re absolutely modern.
Dylan, at the age of 65, continues to wander in the world. He hasn’t given up or settled down. He wouldn’t be satisfied if his life ended today. He doesn’t rest on his considerable achievement, though he doesn’t reject it either. He offers a good model for growing old.