published: 21 /
Fantastic, deservedly-acclaimed latest album from Bob Dylan, which, following 1997's 'Time Out of Mind' and 2001's 'Love and Theft', brings to a conclusion the perfect trilogy
When Bob Dylan sang in 1997’s 'Time Out Of Mind' that "It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there", it seemed to suggest that he had accepted that his tumultuous life was nearing its end. The words were cut with such feeling that they felt like the passing farewell of a giant; the wandering troubadour staring down at the inevitability of his own mortality. Even in the depths of those stark lines, however, there is some hope to be rescued and some spirit yet in the aging Dylan, "it’s not dark yet…" yes, it is "getting there",… yes… I can accept that my remaining days are short in number, but maybe, if I’m lucky there is time yet for one last hurrah, the "shadows are falling", but it is not over quite yet. Perhaps Dylan didn’t know it as he penned 'Time Out of Mind' but despite his apparently persistent gloom there is a glimmer of optimism in him, an optimism that even in a Dylan far removed from the chubby-faced pup that asserted to us so confidently that ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ in 1964 isn’t ready to succumb just yet. The olive branch was 'Love and Theft' and he grabbed it with both hands.
Indeed - to prove my point - Dylan, in typically redoubtable fashion wasn’t content with one last hurrah before he faded. He wanted at least two and after 2001’s 'Love and Theft', 'Modern Times' is exactly that; number three in a trilogy that began with Dylan evoking the impending apocalypse on 'Time Out of Mind', but that finishes with him coming out fighting as he does on the final track
of 'Modern Times', with the words "I’ll make the most of one last extra hour." The track, ‘Ain’t Talkin’' that clocks in at close to nine minutes, is a sprawling moral journey and condemnation of society as well as a poignant self-reflection, that is able to allude to the Garden of Eden in one breath "in the mystic garden", the power of prayer and Christianity in another, and then to turn a corner and confess Dylan’s own personal struggles, "I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbour and do good unto others, but oh mother, things ain’t going well." As in the undoubted classic 'Desolation Row', that saw Dylan at his zenith in apocalyptic imagination and allusion, Dylan again places himself in the midst of the corruption he reveals; it is by being his own most ardent critic that his words induce their potency.
The album is a rallying cry against those that "crush you with wealth and power", a stand against the tide of so-called 'Modern Times'. The title is quite appropriate. Clearly it intimates Chaplin’s film 'Modern Times', dealing – as the film does – with the state of the economy and the disillusionment and disenfranchisement of society; particularly the working classes. Quite clearly, despite the title, there is nothing "modern" about this album. It is a classic, perhaps even timeless album. 'Workingman’s Blues # 2', a moving blues ballad whose melody is reminiscent of ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ without the schmaltz, is perhaps the finest song from a fine collection and could have been written in the 1920’s depression just as easily as it could today. Its lyrics, which question the idea that "low wages are a reality if we want to compete with abroad" are effortlessly brilliant, and the chorus; which challenges the listener: "You can hang back or fight your best on the frontline" is delivered with a vocal performance of a quality absent from Dylan since the 1983 album 'Infidels'. He uses the cracks in his aging voice to run and skip over some lines and to linger on others with such care and precision that, despite accounts to the contrary, Dylan is evidently now at the height of his vocal powers.
The opening track, 'Thunder on the Mountain', is a rhythmic traditional blues rock and roll song in the same vein as 'Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum' from 'Love and Theft'. It sets the tone for the album that contains a number of these songs (Track 5, 'Someday Baby', bearing more than a passing resemblance to 'Maggie’s Farm'.) and is tightly performed by the band; that are wisely the same musicians that Dylan is currently touring with. Rather unexpectedly 'Thunder on the Mountain' contains a reference to Alicia Keys, which leads one to fear that Dylan might have developed a soft-spot for the singer-songwriter. It, however, adds humour to the song in the same way the dialogue between God and Abe does at the beginning of 'Highway 61 Revisited', or the jokes do on 'Po’ Boy'. This song is followed by another highlight of the album 'Spirit on the Water'. It is Dylan at his romantic best. It is not the broken-hearted romance of 1975’s 'Blood On the Tracks' (although much of the imagery is similar to 'If You See Her Say Hello',) rather it is the unabashed outpouring of emotion of 'I Want You'. The lyrics are deceptively simple, Dylan rhyming "wall" and "fall" for example, but they underline both his own feelings of love, and his disregard for the view that he is passed his best: "You think I’m over the hill / You think I’m past my prime / Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin’ good time."
Dylan, as he sings on the melancholic and beautiful 'Nettie Moore'; led by a simple drum beat and playful, soft guitar, is "in a cowboy band" and he really is a cowboy at heart. He is a traveller, an apt case for the title ‘Rolling Stone’ but he has almost reached the end of his journey. He might "have a new suit and a new wife". and a new album to boot, but his age has given him the gift of experience, a gift he is now sharing. It seems that he was right when he said in 1964’s My Back Pages, "Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now."
Thunder on the Mountain
Spirit on the Water
Rollin' and Tumblin'
When the Deal Goes Down
Workingman's Blues #2
Beyond the Horizon
The Levee's Gonna Break