Every four or five years Bob Dylan releases a new album, and each time you ask yourself, “Does he have another good one in him?”
The answer here is a resounding “Yes.” Dylan has done it again. He has set out his stall. Gather round people and come and pay close attention to what the wise old man has to say. He is speaking clearly about what he sees on the landscape and about what it all might mean.
Bob Dylan — Modern Times: Track-by-track review
1. “Thunder On The Mountain”
Dylan kicks off Modern Times upbeat and chugging along with this track. He gives some evidence of keeping up with things modern by referring to Alicia Keys, but his God still looms large in his sight. The glaring contrast between this song’s optimistic, cheery pulse and Dylan’s hard-headed lyrics is most apparent in lines like:
Gonna raise me an army
Some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the
As a signal of what might be to follow next on this CD, “Thunder On The Mountain” works well. The tone of inquiry has been established.
2. “Spirit On The Water”
Sweetly and with tenderness, Dylan seems to be thinking out loud about another bittersweet relationship in this track. Swooping guitar and brushes on a shuffling drum serve as a tasty backing to the meandering, understated vocals that have become Dylan’s style since his sixtieth birthday.
What he achieves in “Spirit On The Water” is a perfect marriage of subtle melody and striking imagery. He struggles against abandoning himself to a lover and sets this inner battle against lulling waves of walking bass and silky glittering chords.
3. “Rollin’ And Tumblin'”
Here Dylan churns out more twelve-bar blues, but this time they are injected with tension. His voice strains against years of continual touring as he punches out lyrics verging on the blatantly misogynist.
But there is still the quality musicianship that is on display all through this album: the slide guitar; the grinding force of a tight rhythm section that is equally adept at country and western and soulful rock.
Dylan has played with some dud groups in the past, and his current touring band is certainly not one of his best. But in the studio, on this album these craftsmen have come together beautifully and this song exemplifies that. Good sense has been shown by largely burying the singer-songwriter’s ordinary guitar work all through the album and the listener can only benefit from this.
4. “When The Deal Goes Down”
There is a somewhat nostalgic air to this Bob Dylan song, which is probably why a 1950’s style Scarlett Johansson featured in the single’s video clip. The dreamy quality it evokes is brought on by the tasteful use of electric steel guitar and Dylan’s world-weary voice making out lyrics full of philosophical pearls:
I heard a deafening noise
I felt transient joys
I know they’re not what they seem
In this earthly domain
Full of disappointment and pain
You’ll never see me frown
5. “Someday Baby”
What follows next is another treatise on the love-hate relationship that Dylan has drawn on successfully for a number of songs in the last decade. Here an up-tempo grinding pattern provides a repetitive motif for a log of complaints like:
I’m so hard pressed, my mind tied up in knots
I keep recycling the same old thoughts
But these are not the gripes of a victim. After threats and promises the offending partner is eventually kicked, bringing the satisfaction that comes from worrying no more.
6. “Workingman’s Blues #2”
This is arguably one of Bob Dylan’s best ever songs. It’s the kind of automatic classic he was once responsible for crafting on a regular basis, as it touches so many emotions, simply because there is no one as well-known who speaks so eloquently for the common man anymore:
I’m listenin’ to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping its way into my gut
As a piece of music it is complete. Propelled by piano, understated minor chords build with momentum and intensity leading up to the final emotive chorus. A true Dylan masterpiece for the modern era.
7. “Beyond The Horizon”
The only genuine weak point on the CD, “Beyond The Horizon” is an unconvincing ballad that contains some of Dylan’s sloppiest lyrics since the early 1990’s. His voice is pleasingly reminiscent of Leonard Cohen, but even that cannot save this throwaway effort.
8. “Nettie Moore”
My five year old son Hugo (accurately) called this a stomping song, but it is at a slow stomp broken by beautiful, regretfully intoned choruses. Dylan makes so much sense here and he seems to be autobiographical when he sings:
Gonna travel the world is what I’m gonna do
Then come back and see you
9. “The Levee’s Gonna Break”
This track continues Dylan’s recurring theme of floods and water rising. The taut, insistent twelve bar format is layered with jangling acoustic six-string, flapping drums, pinched staccato guitar repeats and running bass lines. Put together, this creates the impression of a build up, a filling up of the levee, and we are up to our ears in it.
In the end though, we are left with the metaphor of a relationship that is at breaking point. The New Orleans floods have been hinted at but never quite mentioned directly.
10. “Ain’t Talkin'”
The final compelling eight minutes and forty eight seconds of Modern Times is the culmination of the apocalypse theme which has been implicit during several of the previous tracks.
In this plodding but enthralling narrative, Dylan may be paying a kind of homage to Johnny Cash. He calmly informs us:
In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell
I’m trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain’t going well
Bob Dylan concludes Modern Times in the most atmospheric and dark way possible. There is no hope left in the desert where he is just walking alone and silent. One cannot help wondering if this man’s belief in the finality of the planet is actually an expression of dreading his own mortality.
Now only a few years from being seventy, Dylan seems to understandably have one eye on the hands of time.
Modern Times by Bob Dylan
“Thunder On The Mountain”
“Spirit On The Water”
“Rollin’ And Tumblin'”
“When The Deal Goes Down”
“Workingman’s Blues #2”
“Beyond The Horizon”
“The Levee’s Gonna Break”