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Bob Dylan: Modern Times

Track List

>Thunder on the Mountain
>Spirit on the Water
>Rollin' and Tumblin'
>When the Deal Goes Down
>Someday Baby
>Workingman's Blues #2
>Beyond the Horizon
>Nettie Moore
>Levee's Gonna Break, The
>Ain't Talkin'

Album Remarks & Appraisals:

Bob Dylan's first new album in five years, the highly-anticipated Modern Times includes 10 new songs recorded this past winter, and features Dylan on the keyboard, guitar, harmonica and vocals, and accompanied by his touring band. Modern Times is seen as the third release in an outstanding triology along with Time Out Of Mind and Love and Theft and is set to be another groundbreaking record for the music icon.

"As an artist and a conundrum, Bob Dylan is well-versed in semi-hysterical critical hyperbole. With each new record since 1997's stellar Time Out of Mind, music writers and editors have been tripping all over themselves trying to sputter out the best, most dramatic encapsulation of Dylan's rebirth (which, given the relative late-career flops of his peers and his own 1980s shitstorm, still seems strange and thrilling). Now, 45 years into a perfectly studied, over-anthologized, well-chronicled career, even talking about the cult-of-Dylan seems clichéd: Analysis of Dylan-love, Dylan-backlash, Dylan-histrionics, and Dylanology is moot. Books have been published, academic treatises have been defended, documentaries have been ordered and directed, cover stories have been savored and parsed-- but every time Bob Dylan cranks out a new record, we still try, again, to figure out what it all adds up to.

Modern Times is Bob Dylan's 31st studio LP, and an obvious companion piece to 2001's Love and Theft, offering new tracks of jazz-inspired, rockabilly-scamming, ragtime-aping rock'n'roll, more heavily indebted to blues and honky-tonk than Woody Guthrie and Folkways. The record does little to persuade disbelievers, will continue to infuriate those who cheered when Pete Seeger jerked the plug at Newport, and isn't entirely unfamiliar: Anyone who's seen Dylan play in the past five years will recognize the silhouette here, hunched over a keyboard, all crags and angles, brambles of hair puffing out from under a big black hat, pencil mustache combed into place, pounding keys, infinitely more compelled by his fellow players than his sycophantic audience. Unsurprisingly, Modern Times is musically intricate, thick, and expertly played, more the product of a well-rehearsed-- but still gorgeously mellow-- band than an auteur. It also contains some of the softest, funniest, and most charming songs of Dylan's late career, as he snickers to himself, cooing about love, God, and doing it ("I got the pork chops/ She got the pie").

Dylan recently spat a series of (now-notoriously) curmudgeonly comments to Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone, pining that nothing sounds like shellac-- and while his complaints seemed depressingly stodgy, they were also promptly misconstrued and yanked out of context; as it were, Dylan was deriding contemporary production/studio techniques and not the whole of modern music, which becomes instantly and weirdly obvious to anyone who listens to the lyrics to raucous opener "Thunder on the Mountain" ("I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't help from crying/ When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line/ I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be/ I been looking for her even clean through Tennessee"), or considers the fact that Dylan produced this record himself (under favored stage-name Jack Frost).

Still, it's obvious that Dylan's most beloved songs are old ones, and he borrows gleefully from Nina Simone, Memphis Minnie, Carl Perkins, Muddy Waters, and, in the grand tradition of AP Carter and John Lomax, plenty of unnamed songwriters whose work long ago slipped into public domain. "Rollin' and Tumblin'" (Muddy Waters famously recorded the song in 1950, but its origins date back to at least 1929) is given a new workup, infused with Dylan's signature clatter and wheeze and punched up with peppery guitar and even spicier lyrics ("I got trouble so hard, I just can't stand this dream/ Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains"). Meanwhile, "Nettie Moore" (a well-worn 19th century ballad) is staggering, a spare blend of vocals and light, airy instrumentation, Dylan's decaying pipes tut-tutting sweet proclamations of love: "When you're around me/ All my grief gives way/ A lifetime with you is like some heavenly day/ Everything I've ever known to be right has been proven wrong." "Workingman's Blues 2" is similarly gentle and lapping, and "The Levee's Gonna Break", with its familiar Zeppelin-via-Memphis-Minnie refrain ("If it keeps on raining/ The levee's gonna break"), seems almost self-referential ("I paid my time/ And now I'm as good as new...Some of these people are gonna strip you of all they can take").

The biggest disappointment here is that Modern Times is probably Dylan's least-surprising release in decades-- it's the logical continuation of its predecessor, created with the same band he's been touring with for years, fed from familiar influences, and sprinkled with all the droll, anachronistic bits now long-expected. Dylan's voice, sinking further into grit, is all wheeze and mew, rolled in salt but still instantly recognizable. And now that he's eyebrows-deep in the rock'n'roll canon, maybe the heart-stopping appeal of Bob Dylan has less to do with his output-- which, tangentially, remains outstanding-- and more to do with his cowboy boot-saunter. Maybe we all want a little bit of Dylan's superhuman restraint, and whether it's real or brutally calculated doesn't actually matter: The fuck-off detachment, the unconcerned genius, the squinty-eyed disdain, the arid, gut-punching humor, the total (if feigned) disinterest in his growing superhero status. He's the boy who doesn't love us back, the one everyone yearns for, the Holy Grail, the last American hero." -AllAboutJazz

Album Reviews:

Rolling Stone (pp.99-100) - 5 stars out of 5 -- "The mood is America on the brink -- of mechanization, of war, of domestic tranquility, of fulfilling its promise and of selling its dreams one by one for cash on the barrelhead....It is music of accumulated knowledge..."

Rolling Stone (p.102) - Ranked #1 in Rolling Stone's "The Top 50 Albums Of 2006" -- "MODERN TIMES is a groove album disguised as a poetry album..."

Entertainment Weekly (p.75) - "Intriguing, immediate, and quietly epic, MODERN TIMES must rank among Dylan's finest albums."

Entertainment Weekly (p.130) - Ranked #7 in Entertainment Weekly's "Top 10 Records Of 2006" -- "MODERN TIMES adds another glorious chapter to Dylan's late-career renaissance..."

Q (p.126) - Ranked #7 in Q Magazine's "100 Greatest Albums of 2006" -- "[I]t offered strident blues, wistful ragtime and shimmering ballads."

Uncut (p.72) - 5 stars out of 5 -- "[T]he emotional breadth is helped by one of Dylan's strongest singing performances....A Dylan who finally seems comfortable, and is ready to take things as far as it'll go."

No Depression (pp.97-98) - "[T]he album is both the most playfully sexual and profoundly spiritual from Dylan in decades."

Mojo (Publisher) (p.94) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "[A] great deal of it is split between 12-bar treatises about love and lust and croonsome ballads about much the same themes, and one regularly gets the sense that its author might just be having a whale of a time."

Album Notes

Personnel: Bob Dylan (vocals, guitar, harmonica, piano); Bob Dylan; Tony Garnier (cello, acoustic bass); George G. Receli (drums, percussion); Denny Freeman, Stuart Kimball (guitar); Donnie Herron (steel guitar, mandolin, violin, viola).

Recording information: 2006.

Photographer: Kevin Mazur.

It's arguable that at no point since his 1960s heyday has Bob Dylan been as celebrated as in the decade following his critically acclaimed 1997 album TIME OUT OF MIND. Numerous films, books, and albums--mostly Columbia's impressive archive series of reissues--have been part of a universal canonization of the singer and met with considerable enthusiasm by fans and critics alike. 2006's MODERN TIMES, the third album to have been released in nearly 10 years and part of a trilogy that also includes 2001's brilliant and upbeat LOVE AND THEFT, is easily deserving of such enthusiasm and is further reason for the formal veneration.

Musically, the album finds Dylan once again mining the stately traditionalist sound first heard on LOVE AND THEFT. Lazy blues numbers, piano-based songbook pop, and jumpin' country swing provide the backdrop for Dylan's continuing study of the vicissitudes of life, love, and death. Although he is certainly world-weary, a lot of life is lived in the verses of these songs and there is a dogged spirituality that provides, if not hope (a rather prosaic notion for Dylan by this point, to be sure), at least a means to finding contentment. Finally, a word about Dylan's voice here: while his singing has always been unconventional and never pretty in any traditional sense, in its raspy magnificence it is simply perfect for this timeless music.


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