hroughout much of the late 70s and 80s, and even into the early 90s, Bob Dylan existed in a space somewhere between joke and relic. So it’s hard to blame him for relishing his current position as unimpeachable national treasure and wily, wise link to our rich cultural past.
Of course, there’s more than one kind of past being preserved here. There’s the 60s, which Dylan evokes just by existing and indirectly ennobles every time he writes a halfway decent song. Then there’s the past that stretches back to the beginnings of recorded music and even earlier, the jump blues and starlit standards of the early 20th century that have lately become Bobby’s bread and butter. His critically-adored, publicly-lauded bread and butter.
Because people eat this shit up with a spoon. Look at Christina Back to Basics Aguilera. Look at the wildly incontinent mess Outkast just released that still earned pretty decent reviews. Look at the career of Diana Krall or even the O Brother phenomenon. Admittedly, Dylan handles this material about a thousand times better than any of these people, refusing to sink to cheap gimmickry and wringing genuine truths and hard-won lessons from situations both archaic and timeless. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s an exceedingly safe route to take, one that virtually guarantees Dylan won’t have to risk looking like a fool.
Y’know, like the risk Dylan took when he strapped on that alien non-acoustic guitar at Newport in 1965. Or when he stretched conventional single running times to mesmerizing, hallucinatory lengths. Or went underground. Or went country. Or turned fiery, evangelical Christian. Or when he hired cheesy backup singers to repeat every other dumb line he sang. Or when he made a haunted, frightening album about death and oblivion. Look, I’m not the one who initiated comparisons between Modern Times and the masterworks in Dylan’s canon—that heretical subject’s already been breached in multiple circles.
Modern Times is a highly listenable, frequently compelling, and occasionally revelatory album, but it’s also hard to listen to it and not feel a little bit rebuffed, because it’s obvious Dylan’s holding all the cards. The sound is relaxed and wonderfully assured, but Bob’s also fully in control of these songs as moments too, which is why you rarely hear him get seized up by the material, that tremendous sense of abandonment and absence of self-possession that made The Basement Tapes so recklessly magical. Here, instead, you often get the feeling that Dylan’s reenacting emotion rather than experiencing it.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s some really good stuff here. “Thunder on the Mountain” is sharp and shifty and flat-out devilish fun. I don’t necessarily expect Dylan to make an album that engages every half-witted nook and cranny of modern pop culture, but the reference to Alicia Keys is jarring and welcome. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is a good vigorous blues too, Dylan crowing that “some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains” and making me think for at least a minute that he’s going to take a brave page from the Stones and NY Dolls’ books and risk making a lecherous old ass of himself.
Even the measured and far more benign ballads are almost universally fantastic in their lyrics. You’d be hard-pressed to name anybody who’s writing them better right now, and even though it’s Dylan it’s still an absolute marvel to think how far he’s come from shit like “I don't think it's liable to happen / Like the sound of one hand clappin'.” Though things might be rendered in stark life-and-death terms a tad too much, Dylan’s words have a directness and a physicality that’s often remarkable, like when he sings “I’m just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from creeping its way into my gut,” or confesses that “I laugh and I cry and I’m haunted by / Things I never meant or wished to say.”
Dylan’s delivery can be occasionally heart-rending as well, as in the quietly rushed way he puts across the otherwise clichéd testament, “I’d walk through a blazing fire baby if I knew you was on the other side,” like an off-handed but eminently revealing aside. Unfortunately, while there’s plenty of tenderness and sensitivity here, there’s just not enough investment in many of the performances. It starts with the genteel arrangements of “Beyond the Horizon” and “Nettie Moore” and lazily shucking grooves of “Someday Baby” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and runs all the way up to Dylan’s over-subtled singing, which I’ll admit can certainly be powerfully evocative when it comes to intimate declarations of love like “Spirit on the Water” and “When the Deal Goes Down.” But when Bob’s trying to come off like some ageless prophetic badass, he just sounds vaguely unpleasant and decidedly non-threatening (which likely explains when “Someday Baby” is the song that ended up in an iPod commercial).
If this is how Dylan wants to waltz into the sunset then that’s fine, he’s still more intellectually vital than most all of his contemporaries and successors—even if he’s not always emotionally or (at all) musically so. But if you’re going to hold up Modern Times against the man’s supreme achievements then you can’t give him more credit than he deserves either. Essentially the album is a placeholder, diverging precious little from 2001’s Love and Theft, which, don’t forget, was released half a decade ago. It’s an intriguing and thoughtful and occasionally lively record, but it’s not the rollicking, randy good time some folks would lead you to believe. Are you just saying that because he’s old? Are we really giving Dylan that many bonus points just for having a line about eating pussy? Please, if you think the zenith of fun, vibrant music made by old people is Bob Dylan on Modern Times, listen to Tom Zé’s Estudando o Pagode, a marvelous technicolor pop album released earlier this year. And that crazy old bastard’s got five years on Bob!