Reviewed by Shawn Badgley, Fri., Sept. 1, 2006
Modern Times (Columbia)
Delta, he art, and unto the delta he shall return.
Down in the Mississippi River Delta is where we find Bob Dylan on his 31st studio effort, and it shouldn't blow anybody's mind. There's where we found him in 1965, with his sixth LP, astride a Triumph en route to speeds 'til then unheard of on Highway 61 Revisited. Things have changed: The kid who stole and sang the blues of the American Mid-South in the Sixties was a genius whose instincts and fast-twitch gray matter branded an illuminated text onto a rock sound that for many remains scripture. The old dog doing it and I do mean doing it on Modern Times is, as he admits on "Spirit on the Water," saying it plain.
Dylan splashes unabashedly in what's left of delta tributaries like they're a backyard kiddie pool, albeit one inflated with hauntings, carnal urgency, populist agitation, the war on senility, and a sense of awe at the looming rapture. Like 2001's Love and Theft, its predecessor, Modern Times is an album that at first feels light but weighs more heavily on the soul with every listen. "I'll make the most of one last extra hour," the 65-year-old vows on "Ain't Talkin'," the album's last cut, and it'd be hard to argue he's done otherwise. Musically, "Ain't Talkin'" is Dylan at his darkest and most sophisticated: After the "Ballad of a Thin Man" piano stab and "Man in the Long Black Coat" background effect, a marching drum and violin take turns dragging a "dead man's shield" of finger-picked guitar and stand-up bass. Lyrically the chorus rhymes "talkin'" with "walkin'"; "burnin'" with "yearnin'" it's among his most minimal, though there are stretches that transcend.
The same can be said for Modern Times, Chaplinesque only in its obstinance. It's underwritten on purpose and often just copied, sloppy, and lazy. Meanwhile, its melodies whether original or composited from the likes of Johnsons Robert, Tommy, and Lonnie; W.C. Handy; Charley Patton; Memphis Minnie; Skip James; Bing Crosby; Willie Dixon; and recent touring partner Merle Haggard on the resigned but vibrant "Workingman's Blues #2" are strong enough to drive the collection and forge a concept. For a guy known as a singer-songwriter, this must excite; for a singer-songwriter self-producing, even moreso. Overlong as they are, these are beautifully recorded tracks: unadorned, antiquated, intimate. His touring band's instruments court, kiss, go their separate ways. His voice, when it doesn't soften into whispered nothings, is assured. The nasal passages, as it were, are clear.
Columbia bills Modern Times as the third in a trilogy with the Daniel Lanois-produced Time Out of Mind (1997) and Charlie Sexton-assisted Love and Theft. Don't buy it. It's the latter's companion, but Lanois' leaves them both in the dust and couldn't sound more different in doing so. If they form a triology of any kind, it's that each contains a legit canonical entry. On Time Out of Mind, it's "Not Dark Yet." Love and Theft, "High Water." Modern Times provides the pulsing "Nettie Moore," which finds its origins in a slave ballad and its stride in moments of clarity.
"Don't know why my baby never looked so good before," sings Dylan, feeling his way around a sublime, tempo-shifting tune. But there is no baby. She's gone. His world is ending, but the suffering is just beginning. Elsewhere, earlier, a "young slut" has "charmed away my brains" ("Rollin' and Tumblin'"), this coming after he's famously opened the album fantasizing about Alicia Keys ("Thunder on the Mountain"). "Nettie Moore," though, is the one who got away. In his search for her, Dylan sounds like the bluesman he always wanted to be. "Don't have to wonder no more," he nods.