Bob Dylan's remarkable new album Modern Times is set against an apocalyptic backdrop of broken levees, broken dreams, and a "world that has gone black before my eyes," according to at least one of this album's brilliant ten new songs. But if Dylan's got doomsday on his mind, the impending apocalypse he foresees seems to be as personal as it is biblical.
Bob Dylan has employed religious imagery in his lyrics at various points throughout his illustrious career. But unless I am wildly misreading the lyrics here (and I honestly don't think I am), the Modern Times Dylan refers to on this album mean nothing less than the End Of Days itself.
This in itself should surprise no one. Dylan has always been a rather astute commentator on our times since at least his "spokesman of a generation" heyday in the sixties. And whether it's because of a Christian president fighting a "war on terror" against what are largely Islamic enemies (let's be honest here), or the biblical level disasters like Katrina we've seen in recent years, or any and all of the above, make no mistake. Apocalyptic thought has become a deeply ingrained part of the national, if not the global psyche. That someone like Bob Dylan would take note of this on his new record is again, hardly a surprise.
Still, this album contains some of the darkest, most overtly religious imagery Dylan has used since the Slow Train Coming days. But there is a distinct difference between then and now. While Dylan himself seems to be acutely aware of the impending doom of songs like the opening "Thunder On The Mountain," the man we find here is not really so much the zealous fire and brimstone preacher of the infamous "Born Again" years.
Well okay, there is the occasional biblical chastisement. Such as found in the line "Well I got up this mornin', see the rising sun return, Sooner or later you too shall burn" from Dylan's modern uptake of the blues standard "Rollin And Tumblin."
Dylan similarly brings another blues standard into his Modern Times vision of doomsday with "The Levees Gonna Break." Here Dylan sounds for all the world like a cross between Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, as he implores his baby to "put on your cat clothes Mama, put on your evening dress, few more years of hard work, then there'll be 1,000 years of happiness," in a line that seems to reference the future millennial kingdom of biblical prophecy.
More often though, what we find here is a broken down traveler who's made all of the usual mistakes such men make and is seeking redemption pretty much wherever he can find it. In this case, it means walking the usual tightrope between devotion and desire.
On "Thunder On The Mountain," Dylan's world weary traveler of the apocalypse's thoughts go from "wonderin where in the world Alicia Keys could be" to yearning for "some sweet day I'll stand beside my King" in pretty much an instant of time. Then, even as he seeks refuge from the "mean old twister bearing down on me," the band puts a fine shine on the fact with a swagger that recalls "Highway 61" or that great forgotten Shot Of Love B-side "The Grooms Still Waiting At the Altar."
In another of Modern Times best tracks, "Nettie Moore," Dylan brilliantly puts into lyrics the delicate balancing act between the carnal and the spiritual within the very same song.
On the one hand the traveler admits to "a pile of sins to pay for and I ain't got no time to hide," and then in the very next line declares "I'd walk through a blazing fire baby, if I knew you was on the other side." Dylan's traveler then laments about "these bad luck women that stick like glue, it's either one or the other or neither of the two." Clearly, this is a conflicted guy.
Making matters worse is without his beloved Nettie Moore, "there's no one left here to tell, the world has gone black before my eyes." Musically the song is instantly familiar sounding as Dylan wraps his words around a simply strummed guitar punctuated by an ominously metronomic bass drum.
With the apocalypse raging outside, the final track, the eight minute opus "Aint Walkin," finds Dylan's beaten down traveler, "Walkin through the cities of the plague," and that there "ain't no altars on this long and lonesome road." Nothing is resolved as he confesses that "I am a tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others, but oh mother, things ain't going well." The album itself likewise fades into the black of "the last outback at the worlds end."
I don't know about you, but personally I'm game for a sequel.
While Modern Times is being promoted as the final album of the trilogy that began with Time Out Of Mind and continued through 2001's Love & Theft this album not only stands completely out on it's own, but for my money is the best of the three.
Musically, the vibe is very similar to the other two albums in the so-called trilogy. Still, I personally find the mix here to be far more varied in terms of styles. Dylan's vocals here are also not only a lot smoother around the edges (though still carrying the bluesy croak of the other two), the phrasing here is just way sharper, perhaps reflecting the more thematic focus of the lyrics.
As for the lyrics themselves? I downloaded sixteen pages worth just to properly decipher them before writing this review. Dylan hasn't written stuff this darkly fascinating and evocative in years. Modern Times is a masterpiece that is right now easily the best record I've heard this year. Five Stars? Not to put too fine a point on it, but oh hell yeah.
Incidentally the bonus version includes a DVD which includes nifty live footage of "Love Sick" from the Grammy Awards (sadly with the infamous Soy Bomb footage edited out) and videos for "Cold Irons Bound," "Things Have Changed," and "Blood In My Eyes."