"I'm not that serious a songwriter. Songs don't just come to me. They'll usually brew for a while, and you'll learn that it's important to keep the pieces until they are completely formed and glued together." Bob Dylan 2005
There is a saying that a week is a long time in politics, that may be so, but five years is certainly a long time in the recording history of Bob Dylan - the longest he has ever gone between albums (ie studio albums of new material). Half a decade, almost to the day since "Love and Theft" comes the much anticipated and incredibly hyped new album, and the question that most people are asking is, was it worth the wait? The answer is a resounding yes. Even though the gap was partially plugged by no fewer than three instalments of the bootleg series, there is nothing to match the release of a new studio album. An album that Sony/Columbia have billed as the third in a trilogy, although Dylan himself points out that if there is to be a trilogy it begins with "Love and Theft" and not "Time Out of Mind." You can see his point; "Time Out of Mind" was a dark, brooding affair that saw Dylan preoccupied (some might say obsessed) with his own mortality. That theme was continued on "Love and Theft," but the musical landscape was broadened as Dylan dispensed with Daniel Lanois' lush production values and produced the album himself, using his (then) touring band. He takes the same approach on "Modern Times," "...nobody's gonna know how I should sound except me anyway, nobody knows what they want out of the players except me, nobody can tell a player what he's doing wrong....I can do that in my sleep." he told Rolling Stone and here, returning as "Jack Frost," he gives us an album that is musically rich and lyrically powerful. All the familiar themes are here, duplicity, spirituality, deceit, the fickle female heart and of course the big one - death. Dylan is still haunted by his own mortality, but here he approaches it with something akin to humour, well if not humour, a wry acceptance of the one big certainty in all our lives. But for somebody who is now officially a senior citizen, Dylan appears to have no intention of slowing down, his work rate and public profile are probably higher now than they have ever been since the mid-sixties, and his enthusiasm and enjoyment seem to be at an all time high. Touring, writing, DJing, acting and giving interviews are all on his current agenda, and he seizes each of them with a keenness that has been lacking since the heady days of Rolling Thunder. And that seems to be the point of "Modern Times," even though the themes are serious, Dylan examines them with the droll inevitability of a man who has been everywhere, done and seen everything and has nothing left to prove. Only Leonard Cohen could (perhaps) come up with an album like this, without coming across as pathetic, desperate or self-obsessed, but Dylan pulls it off and for the first time in years gives the impression that he is comfortable with what he is doing.
The live in studio feel that Dylan has often aimed for in the past (not always successfully) works like a dream here as the musicians seem to treat this like another night on stage, and I mean that in a positive sense. Instrumental breaks are few; this is all about the lyrics, up front and surprisingly clear as Dylan takes centre stage. And he has been in good voice lately, the NET paused briefly after a gig at Dublin's Point Theatre on Nevember 27th 2005, before resuming in Reno, Nevada on April 1st 2006. It was during this break that "Modern Times " was recorded. Four days of rehearsals (Jan. 31st - Feb. 3rd) at the Bardavon Theatre in Poughkeepsie and a week in a Manhattan studio a few days later. Done and dusted, that's the way to do it, Bob!
Some of the negative criticism of "Modern Times" has been for the length of the tracks, strange when you consider that Dylan rewrote the songwriting rule book and has always written long songs. "Thunder on the Mountain" clocks in at a shade under six minutes, and that is about the average for the ten tracks on the album (the shortest is "Someday Baby" at 4.55). This was the only song that I listened to prior to the album's release and perhaps because of that extra familiarity I really enjoy it; it is not the best song on the album, but as the opening track it serves as a great pointer to where Dylan is currently. As many people have already pointed out, the melody of "Thunder on the Mountain" owes a lot to the classic "Johnny B. Goode" but the structure points more to "Tell 'Ol Bill," the song that Dylan wrote for the soundtrack of the movie "North Country." "Tell 'Ol Bill," was a far more serious song, here Dylan is having a lot of fun with his lyrics, even if the opening lines "Thunder on the mountain, and there's fires on the moon/A ruckus in the alley..." aren't the most cheerful you will ever hear. The delivery is absolutely wonderful, and illustrates again Dylan's matchless timing and the idiosyncratic way that he stresses the last word of a sentence - this is particularly noticeable in "...gonna grab my trombone and blow" and the later "...the north wind keeps picking up speed," these are great vocals. But at the core of the song (Alicia Keys aside) is an uneasy thread of the downside of modern life, if not modern times, the sound of thunder as a harbinger of urban discord - greed, gunfire, power outages and unemployment, along with the disturbing idea of armies of children as Dylan revisits an image from a much earlier song. If these were not bad enough, we get the prescient lines "Mean old twister bearing down on me," and the even more worrying "...something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down," Modern times indeed, but our hero is not overlooking his two most potent influences. On a lighter note he is "...sittin' down studyin' the art of love," the results of which will be to find a "...real good woman to do just what I say," good old Bob, never afraid of upsetting the feminists, but on a far more sober and serious note, we get two of the many references to his own spirituality "I don't need any guide, I already know the way/Remember this, I'm your servant both night and day," and "Some sweet day I'll stand beside my king." Although not classic Dylan, "Thunder on the Mountain" is a great song with a complexity that will allow the lyrics to be examined and picked over for years to come.
Not so with the second track, I don't know how Dylan gets away with "Spirit on the Water" but he does. There is no depth here, this is song to be taken purely at face value - a rare thing in Dylan's catalogue. There are those, like Rob Harvilla of "Village Voice" who feel uncomfortable about Dylan writing or even singing a song like this at his age, others like Ann Powers in the "LA Times" find it charming, she describes it as being "...based around a descending guitar line as polished as a gigolo's smile." Either way, the song works, from every corny old cliché right down to the uncharacteristically laid-back harmonica solo at the end. And clichés abound here, even though "I keep thinking about you baby/I can't hardly sleep," and "I always knew/We were meant to be more than friends" seem trite on the page, Dylan brings a freshness to them and manages to make the song convince. There is a lightness to the lyrics and some are just downright amusing, from the self-promoting "I'm wild about you, gal/You ought to be a fool about me" to the almost juvenile "I'm as pale as a ghost/Holding a blossom on a stem..." (the pronunciation of the word "No" in that verse is amazing). Not all of the lyrics are quite so innocent however, "They brag about your sugar/They brag about it all over town" (sugar?), which is followed by the even more suggestive "Put some sugar in my bowl/I feel like laying down." This is a song that needs a few listenings, on first hearing I considered this and "Someday Baby" to be the weakest tracks on the album, but it has really grown on me. That said, it does begin to flag a bit by verse seventeen (of twenty!), but there is a nice kick at the end, "You think I'm over the hill/You think I'm past my prime/Let me see what you've got/We can have a whoppin' good time." For some reason those lines always remind me of Keith Richards who often bitches about how people focus on the age of certain artists and at only two years younger than Dylan he is still trying to shake it up with the best of them, Dylan at least maintains a little dignity.
"Rollin' and Tumblin'" takes us back to the rock era with Dylan borrowing heavily from an old Muddy Waters song. He doesn't change the title, nor does he credit Waters on the album cover, something that seems to have ruffled a few feathers but I doubt that he is losing any sleep over it. Incidentally, there is a lot of "borrowing" on this album, but this is something that Dylan has always done and I don't see why it should suddenly be a problem. Anyway, this is a great little rocker with Dylan in fine form vocally with his band chugging along respectfully. Those who bemoaned the loss of Larry Campbell a couple of years ago are probably still missing him, but the current band members are more than competent, "On this record I didn't have anybody to teach. I got guys now in my band, they can whip up anything, they surprise even me..." is Dylan's highly esteemed evaluation of them. But again the song really belongs to Dylan and his lyrics and again he is in the familiar territory of betrayal, "Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains" is an unusually strong and vicious description for Dylan, or is he talking about Alicia Keys again (last mention I promise). Again, there is the customary wry humour to his situation, "This woman is so crazy, I swear I ain't gonna touch another one for years," and the resigned acceptance of it, "Ain't nothing so depressing as trying to satisfy this woman of mine." And almost buried in the middle of the song comes an echo from a certain farm of forty odd years ago, "I ain't nobody's houseboy, I ain't nobody's well trained maid." The song ends on a thought provoking note, Dylan slows the tempo right down for the last phrase, "...I think I must be traveling wrong," which gives the impression that he is contemplating his spiritual life rather than his emotional one.
The first three tracks are all good, two rockers and a bluesy ballad, but it is when we get to the fourth track that we encounter the first potential classic. "When the Deal Goes Down" is a truly wonderful piece of writing made more so by Dylan's extraordinary delivery of it. There are similarities with 1981's "Every Grain of Sand," but this is a more subtle piece and part of it's shrewdness is that it can be taken as a simple love ballad, as which it works perfectly, or as something deeper and more spiritual. The simplicity of lines like "We live and we die, we know not why/But I'll be with you when the deal goes down" belie the depth of emotion that Dylan injects into this song. "Far down the street we stray" echoes the closing line of the previous song as Dylan revisits a favourite theme of drifting from the path of righteousness, but by saying that "We all wear the same thorny crown," he is aligning himself to the rest of the human race with our failings and frailties. There are many references to flowers on this album, and the stranger of the two in this song is "More frailer than the flowers," which besides being grammatically incorrect is one of several lines apparently lifted from Civil War poet Henry Timrod - Mr. Timrod may or may not be turning in his grave. The second image, "...I picked up a rose and it poked through my clothes," is more powerful, and the staccato way the word "poked" comes out is brilliantly descriptive. Although Dylan's world is "...full of disappointment and pain," the most telling line in the whole song, for me anyway, is the final "I owe my heart to you, and that's sayin' it true/But I'll be with you when the deal goes down." I'll go out on a limb here and say that I see this as a direct admission from Dylan to his God, but of course I could be wrong. This was the first song from the album to be given the inevitable video treatment, an innocuous piece with flavour of the month actress Scarlett Johansson cavorting in a jerky fifties/sixties type home movie - interesting but quite pointless. Thankfully it does not detract from the power and beauty of the song.
There seems to have been a great deal of care taken with the sequencing of "Modern Times," which is probably why the weakest track on the album is sandwiched between two of the strongest. There is nothing particularly wrong with "Someday Baby," a harmless little blues shuffle, it just doesn't have the intensity and strength that the rest of the album has. It seems unfinished or poorly thought out, and doesn't seem to go anywhere, perversely it will probably be the one that Dylan chooses to perform live before any of the others. One line on the song "I keep recycling the same old thoughts" sums up the situation perfectly, and the bizarre line "Well, I don't want to brag, but I'm gonna ring your neck" makes no sense to me whatsoever.
If you want to convince any doubters of Dylan's genius as a songwriter, sit them down and make them listen to "Workingman's Blues #2" because this is a song he was born to write. Only two people spring to mind that could write something comparable to this, and with all due respect to both Young and Springsteen neither could master it the way Dylan has - this is the song that "Union Sundown" could have been, but it has taken a more mature and contemplative man to write it. Beginning with one of Dylan's most evocative images, "There's an evening haze settlin' over town/Starlight by the edge of the creek," this is perhaps the only song that fits into the title of the album. My only (minor) gripe is the use of the word "proletariat," it seems oddly out of place, and Dylan doesn't seem comfortable with it. That aside, the song is a relatively simple tale of someone out of their time, and yearning for an age when things were easier and made more sense, "...the place I love is a sweet memory/It's a new path that we trod," but again it is all about the lyrics and the delivery, which are passionate and poignant. This subject has been tackled often in the country music idiom, indeed Dylan himself addressed a similar theme in his 1963 song "North Country Blues," but there is a depth here that gives the song far more importance. His descriptions of lacklustre idleness, unemployment and hunger are vivid and pertinent, he is going to "...sleep off the rest of the day," because "Sometimes no-one wants what we got/Sometimes you can't give it away." He is acutely aware of the dangers of his situation, "I got to be careful, I don't want to be forced/Into a life of continual crime," but oddly, the song is not downbeat or depressing, in fact it ends on a remarkably uplifting note, "I got a brand new suit and a brand new wife/I can live on rice and beans," and he points out with a pragmatic acceptance, "Some people never worked a day in their life/Don't know what work even means." Many see "Workingman's Blues #2" as the album's finest track, Andy Gill, writing in the Independent calls it "...the centerpiece of "Modern Times"" and it is surely one of the strongest in Dylan's recent catalogue, I am certainly not alone in anticipating a live performance.
"Beyond the Horizon" is the surprise track on the album in much the same way that "Moonlight" was on "Love and Theft." I say surprise because I for one never expect Dylan to record songs like this, and am even more amazed when they work, as this one does. I firmly believe that when Dylan went through his so-called country period in the late sixties and early seventies he was genuinely trying to reinvent himself, but youth, inexperience and a fickle fan base would not allow him to do it. As a consequence, his truculence got the better of him and he claimed he deliberately made bad records to get the public off his back, which was probably only partly true. Now, nearly forty years later, he can write and record these songs with impunity, and "Beyond the Horizon" with it's melodic leaning towards "Red Sails in the Sunset" is an absolute delight. Simplicity is the key here as Dylan pours on a heavy dollop of syrup, this is not the "...young lazy slut" of an earlier song, but a more mature and balanced affair. Cliché ridden sure, and again noticeably positioned between two heavyweight tracks, the song slides along driven by such innocuous lyrics as "Beyond the horizon it is easy to love," and "Love waits forever, for one and for all." The song is neatly structured with the opening lines "...behind the sun/At the end of the rainbow life has only begun" being deftly married to the closing couplet "...the sky is so blue/I've got more than a lifetime to live lovin' you" as the whole thing comes full circle.
Dylan does a little more unrecognised borrowing with "Nettie Moore," the original song "Gentle Nettie Moore" (a.k.a. "The Little White Cottage") was copyrighted to one Marshal Spring Pike in 1857, and Dylan uses not only the title but the first two lines of the chorus as well. In the original, Nettie is a slave who is sold, resulting in the heartfelt chorus lines "Oh, I miss you Nettie Moore/And my happiness is o'r," but Dylan closes his chorus with the ominous "The world has gone black before my eyes." In fact the whole tone of the song and it's sparse instrumental backing is dark and menacing, but it makes compelling listening. In this and the final track, "Ain't Talkin'" we find Dylan at his most cryptic, the journey the central character is about to make may be actual or spiritual, it may even be death, as he says, "Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain't got time to hide," and typically he blames his ill-fortune on the opposite sex, "...these bad luck women stick like glue/It's either one or the other or neither of the two." There is a distinct feeling of doom and despair that pervades these lines and the situations that our reluctant hero finds himself in, but throughout he professes his undoubted love, "I'd walk through blazing fire baby, if I knew you was on the other side," and "When you're around me all my grief gives way/A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day." This is not an easy song to get to grips with, as with many of Dylan's best songs we do not deal in specifics, but I suspect that over time the potency of "Nettie Moore" will be fully realised. The original ends with the almost prosaic "But when weary life is past/ I shall meet you once again/In Heaven-- darling, up above the skies," whereas Dylan ends his with the far more portentous "The sun is strong, I'm standing in the light/I wish to God that it were night."
Is "The Levee's Gonna Break" about hurricane Katrina? Probably, in the way that Dylan's songs are "about" anything - it's more likely that the song is just a starting point for him to paint a much broader picture. Armageddon, the Apocalypse, biblical storms, God's wrath, call it what you will, it is a theme that Dylan has explored since before, during and after his apparent conversion. Here he is back on familiar ground, but the metaphors he employs are easier to identify with because of recent events. On a day that "...only the Lord could make," we see the world in a pitiful state of looting, hunger, homelessness and directionless refugees. Before we become too depressed by all this negativity and grimness, there is a beacon of hope in the early line "I got to the river and I threw my clothes away," which is followed by the positivity of "I paid my dues and now I'm as good as new," is this a traditional baptism, a rebirth or penal rehabilitation? As is often the case, the song raises as many (if not more) questions than it answers, but what I really like about it is the vocal, which like most of the vocals on this album Dylan addresses with the comfort of a well-worn jacket, listen to the wonderful way that he manages to get both disdain and pleading into "I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get/You say you want me to quit ya I told ya No, not just yet," Pure Dylan! And right at the end he closes with one of the simplest but best metaphors, "Some people still sleepin', some people are wide awake." This is a song that has great potential for exploration in live performance, we know that Dylan feels more at home on stage than in the studio, and "The Levee's Gonna Break" is a good bet for a live debut soon.
It is no secret that Dylan has for many years placed great significance on the final track of an album. This point has been made often over the years by myself and many others. The early years saw such classics as "Desolation Row" and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," along with such underrated songs as "Restless Farewell." Later we were treated to such gems as "Sara," "Where Are You Tonight" and the sublime "Every Grain of Sand" The last two albums have given us such songs as the haunting, if somewhat lengthy "Highlands," and the heartfelt majesty of "Sugar Baby." It was with this in mind that I approached "Ain't Talkin'" with some trepidation, would Dylan be able to maintain this level of quality with an album that we have waited half a decade for? Not only does he maintain it, but he surpasses it, "Ain't Talkin'" may well be the most provocative and audacious piece that he has ever written. I say this with all due respect to the above mentioned classics, and countless more, but this ethereally mystical masterpiece takes Dylan to a new level. Accepting the fact that he does not present his songs in neat little packages and that he can be as difficult to pin down as a puff of smoke, I may be way off beam with my interpretation of this song, but here Dylan assumes the mantle of a creator, bemoaning the state of the sad and violent world that he has created. His "...mystic garden" contains only wounded flowers that are withered and "...dangling from the vine." The idyllic peace of the "...cool crystal fountain" is shattered by a violent act. It would probably be stretching the point to say that he is ready to give up, but the despair in the lines "In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell," and "But oh, mother, things ain't going well" is evident. Moral and spiritual decay is everywhere, from the exploitation of the weak and unfortunate to the transient worship of wealth and power. As he walks silently through this (vividly descriptive) "...weary world of woe" he ponders on the loyalty of the companions who share his code, but for the others there is still hope, "The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'" even though that hope may be fading, "Walkin' til I'm clean out of sight." He even considers a time when he may not be available as saviour or protector, "There's no-one here, the gardener is gone." Throughout, the sparse backing and the eerie, evocative, half-sung, half-spoken delivery almost makes you hold your breath in anticipation - this is a dazzling performance that seems over almost before it has begun, it is hard to believe that it is almost nine minutes long. When Dylan performs a song like this, he is like a master conjuror performing a seemingly impossible trick on stage, part of you wants to know how it is done, yet part of you wants to retain the mystery. Having everything revealed would surely detract from the power of the song, and thankfully, with Dylan, he is never going to reveal his secrets.
There is little modern about "Modern Times," in fact throughout most of the album Dylan seems to be giving the finger to the modern world as he revels in music that is of a different age and situations that are timeless. He obviously enjoyed making this album, and I must confess that the first time I listened to it right through I found myself thinking "Hmmmmm?" but each time I listen to it, I find new depths in it, always a good sign. Criticism of the album has, in the main been positive, although the negatives, such as they are, concern the length of some of the tracks (this is Bob Dylan, people) and the fact that he has been guilty of plagiarism. Everybody from Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, Memphis Minnie and the aforementioned Henry Timrod are cited as his victims. Dylan's roots are in folk music, and that idiom has always borrowed, adapted and been influenced by what has gone before. He himself has made no secret of this, he has always been open about his influences, and even discusses it in Chronicles. As for Mr. Timrod, with all due respect to that fine gentleman, I suspect that very few people had ever heard of him before somebody mentioned his name on the internet. All this aside, apart from a lengthy and somewhat sycophantic interview in Rolling Stone Dylan has been keeping a reasonably low profile given his recent spate of uncharacteristic visibility. He continues to tour and perform, but at the time of writing none of this new material has been performed live. Critical acclaim though has been high, Rolling Stone gave it five stars and called it "His third straight masterwork." Entertainment Weekly praised it, saying it was
"Intriguing, immediate, and quietly epic, " and that it "...must rank among Dylan's finest albums." Billboard was no less enthusiastic,
"This enchanting album is rife with homespun reflections on philosophy, religion and the never-ending quest for true love." was their understated response. Neil McCormick in London's Telegraph was a little more subdued,
"Modern Times promises the spectacle of a great artist fully absorbed with his work and the wider world, in love with humanity and disgusted by it, fearful for the future but strong enough to face it." One sour note came from Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer whose opinion was "Modern Times, the new album, a wildly overhyped disappointment......The new album is possibly the worst since Self Portrait, with songs that rarely rise above the level of Dylanís low point - and everybody seems afraid to say so." Nevertheless, the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, the first Dylan album to do so since 1976's "Desire" as well as achieving the highest UK sales figures for any Dylan album in the first week of it's release. He also gained the dubious distinction of being the oldest living artist to have a number one album. Columbia Records President Steve Barnett was understandably delighted, "A new Bob Dylan record is an event." he said, "Bob is that rare artist whose music defies all trends and resonates throughout all levels of our culture, and he continues to be as contemporary and relevant as any artist in music." Dylan himself was keen to dispel any notion that he might be nearing the end of his road, "I think I'm in my middle years now" he told Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone, "I've got no retirement plans." A sentiment that I wholeheartedly endorse.