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.