2006 sees the return of the great American poet. This is a new Bob Dylan album. Earlier this year Neil Young made where he stands on the state of the world very clear with Living With War. Philip Roth published a new book and even Thomas Pynchon is throwing his hat in the ring once again. But scrub all that, this is a new Bob Dylan album. Modern Times marks the conclusion to the trilogy started with Time Out Of Mind and continued with Love and Theft. The great seer returns.
So what does he have to say about Modern Times? Everything and nothing, as always. Indeed, the most un-ambivalent thing about this album is his liking for Alicia Keys, which comes across very clearly in the opening track Thunder On The Mountain, an inoffensive country shuffle the like of which make up half this album. The other half have a sort of quasi-Dixieland lounge sound to them. The album is a game of two halves in other ways too, with him generous and tender on some tracks (Beyond The Horizon, When The Deal Goes Down) and combative and resentful on others (Someday Baby, Workingman’s Blues #2).
Polarisation. But then again you should never look for any unity or thematic coherence in a Dylan album, lyrically anyway. Rather than hammer home obvious meaning in his songs, Dylan has in recent times allowed his songs to be dominated by superbly resonant phrases that hang over his melody, that stay with listener long after the CD stops spinning. ‘You got a face that’s made for love’ defines Spirit on the Water, and ‘Someday you ain’t gonna worry for me anymore’ infests Someday Baby.
It may be called Modern Times but these ballads, with their pedal steels, 12-bar blues about railroad tracks hark back to the days Dylan mourns for. Permanently on the road and living in hotel rooms these days, much imagery is drawn from this peripatetic existence. However, his attention does seem to turn to New Orleans with The Levee’s Gonna Break, with the great observer remarking, “some people on the street carrying everything they own.”
Dylan has really been a bit of a grump lately, what with his public ranting at the fact no record has been produced with any modicum of sound quality in the past twenty years, along with his more narked moments on this record. Part of him will always flip the bird to the world that worships him and hangs on his every word, which puts me in mind of The Life of Brian when the messiah tells his followers to leave him alone: “How shall we fuck off, my Lord?”.
The 44th chapter of Dylan’s career finds him as enigmatic and elusive as ever. Modern Times isn’t quite as good as the first two instalments of the trilogy, but its jaunty tunes and enduring sense of romance ensures he is at least staying positive in his dotage.