First off, I feel compelled to warn you that this is a Bob Dylan album. If you’ve already given Dylan an honest and open-minded listening and either still can’t get past his oft-maligned voice or simply aren’t fond of his somewhat weird folk rock injected with postmodern imagery, you’re probably not going to like this album. I can’t fault you for having different tastes than my own. That said, I can’t help but think (probably because of the degree to which I personally am fond of Mr. Dylan’s music) that there are some (perhaps many) who haven’t given the guy a chance, and this album is a pretty good opportunity to do that if you’re up to it. The only disclaimer I can offer is that there are at least six or seven (some might put that number closer to 30) versions of Bob Dylan floating around out there on record, and if you’re expecting to hear the guy who sings songs like “Lay Lady, Lay,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” or “Like A Rolling Stone” the way they sounded in the ‘60s, you’re not going to get it. There, that’s off my chest.
For all the hats he’s worn over the last forty-five years (lately he’s been wearing a Stetson), Dylan’s still at his core a folk singer, and throughout Modern Times he constantly and unabashedly revisits and borrows from the folk and blues canon, seamlessly writing new songs around old lyrics and themes. Backed by the current five-man lineup of his ever-changing touring band, Dylan croaks out blues and croons ballads from behind his guitar and piano, throwing in a few bars of harmonica where needed.
The album starts out with “Thunder on the Mountain,” a nice upbeat blues tune with somewhat typical weird Dylan lyrics that don’t make much sense, but sound cool. With some slick guitar work and a superb rhythm section behind Dylan’s sneering vocals, you’ve got an all-around good album opener.
Next comes “Spirit on the Water,” a somewhat sour love song set to an easy-going jazz standard-sounding piano tune, carried by an upright bass and some airy guitar fills. I guess I’d have to call it a pop song despite its seven-plus-minute length, and also despite the fact that “pop” music like this stopped being mainstream at least forty-five years ago. Not the voice you’d expect to hear crooning out this song, but it works so well you wonder why you didn’t.
“Rollin’ and Tumblin” picks up speed and turns up the guitars again, sounding to me sort of like Dylan's mid-sixties hit “Maggie’s Farm,” if it had been written by John Lee Hooker.
What better way to follow up a heavy blues song than with “When the Deal Goes Down,” a slow waltz that again finds Dylan playing piano, accompanied by a steel guitar and violin.
You could call “Someday Baby” a re-imagining of the blues standard “Worried Life Blues” to some extent, with the rhythm section laying down a nice groove into which Dylan weaves his vocals. One of the highlights of the album to be sure, catch it on the latest iTunes + iPod commercial on telly if you watch that sort of thing.
“Workingman’s Blues #2” is, unless I’m mistaken, Dylan’s most political song in at least the last decade, or at least the first verse is, so I’m actually quite surprised at how much I like it. It might be because after lamenting the fact that “the buying power of the Proletariat’s going down” early on, the tune pretty much turns out to be more of a blue-collar love song. Also, if you’re an absolute geek like me, you might notice how much the instruments here sound like much earlier Dylan. To me it sounds like Dylan in his mid sixties has transported himself back to the mid sixties to sit in on a song recorded one take after “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” but I can tell that I’m losing you. Seems to me that everybody’s got something that they’re a geek about, this is mine. Sorry.
“Beyond The Horizon” is another jazzy love song, or so it seems to be. To me, it seems that perhaps he’s referring to a place/state of life that’s impossible to attain, and singing whistfully about happiness that’s never to be. Give it a listen, either way it sounds pretty nice.
Hmm… I’m not sure what to say about “Nettie Moore.” The lyrics to the verses make less and less sense as the song progresses, but the beautiful chorus and the sadness conveyed throughout make it one of my favorite songs on the album. Good stuff.
Things pick up again with Dylan’s cover/re-write of the old blues song “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” recorded and performed in various different versions over the years, the most famous that I can think of being by Led Zeppelin. Dylan and the band manage to be upbeat yet subdued here, giving the song a much more chilled vibe than its otherwise urgent lyrics suggest.
Ten songs into the album and you’ve reached the closer, “Ain’t Talkin’.” As is not uncommon with Dylan albums, the final track here is slow and acoustic, and it could be one of the eeriest sounding songs in Dylan’s extensive catalog. While most of Dylan’s songs don’t seem to be directly about himself, this tune somewhat suggests that sadly the singer/songwriter is no closer to finding the answers to life’s questions than he ever was. The tune’s final seconds are to me one of the more musically brilliant moments on the whole album, when, after dangling between a few minor chords for the whole song, the band slowly cycles into a major chord so perfectly that you almost forget how gloomy a song it actually was. It’s also got some pretty cool poetic biblical references in there, too.