Bob Dylan is a bad, bad man. Bob Dylan is 65. Bob Dylan does . not . give . a . fuck. And that’s why Modern Times is a great rock’n’roll album at a time when very few artists are making them. Because Dylan is morbid, regal, nostalgic and janky. Because what’s more rock’n’roll than his shredded vocal cords, and the fact that he can’t be bothered to pronounce every single brilliant word?
The name on the front of the album carries a lot of weight. One of the living titans of poetic criticism, Christopher Ricks — the world’s preeminent scholar on Shelley and Tennyson – says Dylan, as an “American poet,” is rivaled only by Walt freakin’ Whitman. In fact, he wrote a book about it.
Think about that for a moment.
It’s impossible to ignore the weight of his legend, and that right now Dylan is doing something that’s never been done before. He started a major musical movement, and now he’s seeing it to its grave. It’s been 45 years and no new Dylan has emerged, no equivalent – there will only be one. The times they’ve a-changed and protest folk, stream-of-conciousness narratives and fiery evangelism are no longer the priorities of youth. Still, Modern Times debuted at number one, making this his fastest-selling album since Desire, 20 years ago. What the fuck?
The first track, “Thunder on the Mountain,” opens with Dylan’s bleak views on love, death, religion and food. Everyone and their mother already knows he drops an Alicia Keys reference, but how about “Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches / I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages / I been to St. Herman’s church, said my religious vows / I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows / I got the porkchops, she got the pie / She ain’t no angel and neither am I / Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes / I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams.”
Elsewhere on the album he’s equally cagey. On the mysteriously (and sort of creepy) sexual slow blues of “Spirit on the Water,” he moans “You think I’m over the hill, past my prime / Let me see what you got.” He delivers that line gently, but it still instills the album with a sense of impenetrability. What drives Dylan? Who is his muse? He’s still angry at an age when most rock stars are cashing in on greatest-hits tours and sentimentality.
Maybe Dylan is starting to feel himself knocking on heaven’s door. Modern Times is full of gallows humor, even more so than usually comes with the territory of a Dylan album. It’s dark but funny, but most of all it’s rock’n’roll done the right way, by one of its most iconic figures.
He does show some signs of his age, but they’re minor distractions. The string arrangements on “Workingman’s Blues #2” are a little corny, although the syrupy strings are more than obscured by the heavy knowledge he drops.
The album ends strongly with the closing trio of “Nettie Moore,” “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and “Ain’t Talkin.’ ” “Nettie Moore” might be the best song on the album, with its simple 4/4 gently loping alongside sparse guitar accompaniment. The song is the perfect example of lyrics only a mature Dylan could write: “The bright spark of the steady lights / Has dimmed my sights / When you’re around me all my grief gives way / A life time with you is like some heavenly day.”
4 out of 5 stars