Before Bob Dylan’s new album, Modern Times, even hit the shelves, it was already being heralded as the last album in a trilogy of masterworks that signals Dylan’s bona fide return to form. Such hyperbole is typical when discussing Dylan, and it’s only human to want to lavish praise on rock’s bard, especially when his career has been so spotty. That he can record three consecutive albums of solid material is indeed reason for celebration, particularly when his peers — McCartney, Young, the Stones — are either releasing albums that are decidedly mediocre, or albums with a few stellar tunes surrounded by tracks that rarely rise above filler. But implying that Dylan made a calculated effort to make a critical comeback by putting together a triptych of masterpieces is, well, wishful thinking. As much as we like to deify Dylan, if he were of holy bloodline, he wouldn’t have subjected us to such dreck as 1973’s Dylan — unless, of course, he was adopting God’s approach to Job in showing the love.
More than likely, Dylan realized a decade ago that to avoid the embarrassment and scorn directed at his peers, he’s got to avoid the hormone-fueled antics of Mick and Keef or futile attempts to look relevant to today’s youth by dyeing his hair and writing catchy “rockers” that don’t really rock (sorry McCartney). Dylan has taken the opposite route by embracing his age and adopting the persona of the old bluesman, the traveling man who has seen it all and is shaken by none of it. Look into Dylan’s eyes and you see a man who knows the deal, a wise and old soul that realizes his time is slowly winding down. The persona suits him well; bluesmen have more ethos when they’re older, while rock artists often look downright pathetic trying to hang onto the inherently youthful spirit of rock. Dylan is nothing if not crafty, and he’s wise to go back to rock’s roots rather than try to forge a new path in a genre that’s been mined to hell.
Whatever his intentions, Modern Times does see Dylan taking the same approach as 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft. Everything here predates rock, from the bluesy trills and boogie shuffle of “Thunder on the Mountain” to the lazy country sway of “Beyond the Horizon”. And while everything here sounds old, it also sounds timeless in that strange sepia-toned manner, like a long-lost picture of your great grandparents that somehow seems both ghostly and living. The new Dylan, you might say, is even older than the one from the early sixties. Rather than coming from the hippie haven of Greenwich Village, these tunes come straight from the Mississippi Delta, capturing the bizarre beauty, romance, and mystique of old America. This, my friends, is Faulkner’s America, all foreboding and wondrous and eerily engrossing. Dylan takes Americana back so far here that blues and jazz and country overlap rather than sounding like separate genres.
Thematically, Dylan addresses the essentials: love, death, and work. And, like a wise bluesman, he connects the three; after all, what man hasn’t spent his life working himself to death in the pursuit of love? In “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, for instance, Dylan wearily proclaims, “I’m flat out spent / This woman’s been driving me to tears / These women so crazy / I swear I ain’t gonna touch another one for years…” No, this ain’t “The answer my friend / Is blowin’ in the wind,” but it’s a lot more tangible. But not all of his thoughts are so carefree or concrete; in the closing “Ain’t Talking,” Dylan says a lot — and he sounds as cryptic of St. John of Patmos. As trembling strings struggle before giving way to faint, rolling guitar, Dylan observes, “As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden / The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine…” If this doesn’t sound foreboding enough, he later adds, “They say prayer has the power to heal / So pray for me brother…” As in “Ain’t Dark Yet,” Dylan hints at his own advancing age, conceding that death is gaining on him; he might also, however, be hinting at society’s demise in these modern times.
As always, the voice is so ravished it lends credibility to the lyrics. While his concerts have become increasingly intolerable, Dylan still sounds appropriate on record. Never an instrument of great range or versatility, his voice is now little more than a whispery croak that disappears at the slightest strain, even in the context of the linear melodies that Dylan writes to suit his limited range. And yet, the creaks and breaks sound appropriate, given that the man is the real deal talking about real life, not a polished and choreographed crooner trying to impress the pop set.
And this takes us back to the beginning… Modern Times is being universally acclaimed as a work of genius, but trying to differentiate between a solid album from an undeniable master and an undeniable masterpiece is getting into Clintonian semantics. Let’s just say this is a damned good album. Some of the songs are two minutes too long and the album is sometimes so breezy it nearly dissolves, but Dylan’s lyrics are in top form and his band is impeccable. More importantly, this collection is proof that he has found a viable niche in an absurd, fickle music industry. Indeed, through an ironic feat, Dylan has found a way to remain relevant by refusing to try to remain relevant. Sure, we all love the young, rebellious poet who warned us of our own treachery, but the modern-time Dylan is the prophetic bluesman who survived death to warn us of things unseen — and no deal with the devil was even necessary.