Bob Dylan: Modern Times

NZ Listener

The apocalypse, the flood and Bob Dylan

MODERN TIMES, Bob Dylan (Columbia)

Like the Chaplin classic from which it borrows its name, Bob Dylan’s Modern Times expresses a discomfort with the present, in ways that are by turns bleak, hilarious, prophetic and tender.

Its first rejection of the modern age is a sonic one. If Dylan’s revived credibility in recent years has much to do with the way Daniel Lanois’s spectacular production of 1997′s Time out of Mind combined musical retrospection with technological tricks, Dylan is having none of it here.

If, as Dylan said recently, recording is something he does with reluctance, then he’s doing it on his terms. Self-producing, as he did for Time’s follow-up Love and Theft, he approximates the feeling, if not the technical specifics, of a pre-stereo age. His voice, which these days has the texture of a dried-up creek bed, is pushed to the foreground like a crooner on an old 78. You picture the musicians – his current touring band, with which he still performs upwards of 100 shows a year – arced around a single vintage microphone. They create a warm blend from which one instrument will occasionally step to the fore – the guitarist for a crisply picked solo, the violinist for a plaintive string line.

Stylistically, the songs pay homage to sounds Dylan would have encountered as a teenager, Chuck Berry rock’n'roll being the most contemporary of them. There are also Tin Pan Alley-type tunes, deep delta blues, honky-tonk and rockabilly.

Dylan adapts these archetypes to suit his needs. Lines from old folk songs are coupled to new rhymes. “I’ve gone where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog/Get away from all these demagogues.”

In a couple of instances he appropriates entire songs. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” was made famous by Muddy Waters and “Someday Baby” by Sleepy John Estes. Utilising their original riffs and opening stanzas, he constructs new songs on top of the old, piling on images of “long dead souls” and “crumbling tombs” until their delta foundations have disappeared under an apocalyptic landscape of his own.

There is a further rejection of the present in the way Dylan refuses to separate current events from historical ones. Rather, he sets these songs on a continuum that runs from biblical times, through the 20th century and into the indeterminate future. Contemporary R&B diva Alicia Keys crops up mysteriously in a song that other-wise seems to be set in the Depression.

If “Levee’s Gonna Break”, with its images of floods and “people on the road carrying everything they own”, momentarily invites thoughts of Hurricane Katrina, the next verse sweeps you back to an age of cat clothes and evening gowns. You realise that this could be any flood, from the time of Noah to New Orleans.

The singer of these songs is in perpetual motion, “walking through this weary world of woe”. It doesn’t matter where along this axis he finds himself; the follies, sufferings, evils and heartaches he observes remain constant, even as the landscapes and timeframes shift.

And yet the album is scattered with moments of tenderness, small offerings that give a warmth Dylan listeners have learnt not to expect. Concluding a slow, almost sentimental waltz with the lines “I owe my heart to you, and that’s saying it true, and I’ll be with you when the deal goes down”, he might be crooning to a lover or praying to God; it’s ambiguous, still in a world of doubt and deceit it stands out as a touching promise.

The album’s themes are distilled in its final song, the nine-minute, minor-key “Ain’t Talkin’”. Dylan’s weary pilgrim is still walking, the road is growing darker with every step. It’s a road without altars, a road that passes “through the cities of the plague” before finally reaching “the last outback at the world’s end”.

But then Dylan delivers a note of hope – literally. For the song’s closing chord he shifts, without warning, from the minor tonic that has tolled mournfully throughout the song to its relative major. It is a small gesture, an upward movement as subtle as one of Chaplin’s tics, yet a brilliant one, leaving this deceptively straightforward, predominantly dark album on an unexpected ascendant note.

Tags: bob dylannew orleansmuddy waterssleepy john estescharlie chaplin

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