On his newly released Modern Times record Bob Dylan moves forward by forging songs that are strongly rooted in the past. This album is musically panoramic in scope as Dylan and his talented touring band comfortably and skillfully play a variety of music that includes slow & up-tempo blues, rockabilly, and timeless ballads.
Modern times has been compared to Dylan's 1997 Time Out of Mind and his 2001 Love and Theft records as the third installment of his latter day comeback masterpieces - but I consider his 1989 Oh Mercy record as the beginning point of his career comeback and resurgence.
By Dylan's choice and design, the production on this record is cleaner and sparser than his Time Out of Mind album. This approach showcases the lyrics and music that are rich with many subtleties that draw the listener back again and again (credit the genius of generosity for this).
Like a good red wine that needs to be properly decanted in order to release all of its flavors, Modern Times requires at least 4 or 5 listens before all of the records flavor notes and nuances rise to the top of the minds palette.
-Thunder On The Mountain features Chuck Berry style guitar riffs, and confidently offers both engaging music and intriguing words - including struggles with an unidentified woman who he can't live with or without, and Dylan's proclamation that "Some sweet day I will stand beside my king." (a taste of the records tension between the trials of this life contrasted with the hope offered by a relationship with Christ).
-Spirit On the Water and Beyond The Horizon are love songs with Dylan crooning like a latter day Bing Crosby. Both songs are subtle and pleasing with delicate nuances of instrumentation and vocal phrasing that add listening interest. Especially enjoyable is the harmonica entwined with guitar at the end of Spirit On The Water, some of the best harmonica sounds that Dylan has ever recorded.
-Along with Thunder On The Mountain, Rollin' and Tumblin' and Someday Baby provide Dylan and band an ample opportunity to strut their stuff. The infectious guitar riffs carry the songs along, while playful lyrics keep the ears tuned to hear what Dylan has to say. One of these songs may just earn a place as a pre-encore show closer, much the same way that Love and Theft's Summer Days has.
-When The Deal Goes Down begins with guitar notes reminiscent of Where Teardrops Fall (a song on his Oh Mercy album) and includes both subtle music, coupled with intricate lyrics that discuss the trials and commitment involved with close relationships:
"We eat and we drink, we feel and we think
Far down the street we stray
I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by things that I never meant to nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crowns
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down."
This is the first song on Modern Times to be released as a video (featuring young starlet Scarlett Johnansson), and is the type of love song that only Bob Dylan could write.
-Someday Baby (featured in the new iTunes & iPod commercial) sports a Harpo Slim style guitar riff and Dylan's blistering lyrics about payback time for love gone bad.
"I tried to be friendly, I tried to be kind
I'm gonna drive you from your home, just like I was driven from mine.
Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry po' anymore."
Both the guitar riff and Dylan's words are catchy and further serve to engage the listener in trying to figure out where Dylan is heading on this record.
-Workingman's Blues #2 is a social commentary song that provides a nod to friend Merle Haggard (Dylan has invited Haggard along on a couple of recent American tours). Although this song does not sound like Haggard's original, the connection between Dylan and Haggard is strong - sort of a mutual admiration society. Dylan recently said that he was waiting for Merle to write a "Blowing In The Wind #2".
-Ain't Talkin', Just Walkin', the albums closing song, paints a clear and stark graphic mental images of a journey filled with pain, suffering, revenge and love - all the typical things that go along with living here on planet earth. This song is a haunting and intensely engaging present day personal glimpse into the human heart. It pulls the listener in and takes them on a trip that includes painfully honest thoughts, perceptions and experiences encountered along the way.
Modern Times was carefully sequenced with specific songs placed exactly the artist wanted them to be. The opening songs give us the stage-show Dylan, boasting, "Today's the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow. Well, there's hot stuff here and its everywhere I go." (According to Dylan, he doesn't have anything left to prove, so I have to believe that he gets much joy performing, and along the way, stirring up continued interest in both himself and his music).
This last track provides a more personal glimpse of the private Dylan (he has held the cards of his personal life as close to his vest as possible, and has only recently offered fans a bit more insight via the Martin Scorsese directed, "Don't Look Back" biographical documentary and his "Chronicles: Vol. 1" book). On this track he sings that,
"They say prayer has the power to heal
So pray for me mother
In the human an evil spirit can dwell
I am a-tryin' to love my neighbor and do good unto others
But oh, mother, things ain't going well."
The record includes both lyrics and music that carry the listener along on a ride that is both timeless and timely. Modern Times' lyrics provide a good amount of food for thought that will keep folks busy trying to figure out what Dylan is saying (including references to finding and losing love, revenge, sin, forgiveness, faith in God - all set in the context of the beautiful, and sometimes cruel world, that we all live in).
Dylan's tasteful and skilled phrasing complements the record's well crafted lyrics. Throughout Modern Times the artist uses his voice as one of the instruments at his disposal, and this record his words are, for the most part, clearly enunciated (but now always clearly understood).
Although Modern Times may not bring any new converts into Dylan's fold, it is a record that showcases the skills and genius of a true living legend.
Modern Times Complete Track List:
1. Thunder On The Mountain
2. Spirit On The Water
3. Rollin' and Tumblin'
4. When The Deal Goes Down
5. Someday Baby
6. Workingman's Blues #2
7. Beyond The Horizon
8. Nettie Moore
9. The Levee's Gonna Break
10. Ain't Talkin', Just Walkin'