Ramblin' Man

Officer, I know that highway like I know my hand: Bob Dylan prepares to hand over his driver's license and vehicle registration
David Gahr

Bob Dylan
Modern Times

Bob Dylan likes to front like an anti-techie, doing things such as avoiding the studio for five years at a time and telling Jonathan Lethem in Rolling Stone that recent recording technology is bunk. ("You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them." Hey, he noticed!) But he is, as usual, full of shit. Dylan isn't wrong about the practice of mastering CDs so loudly that they "clip" at top volume (the webzine Stylus recently ran an informative, if overlong, article by Nick Southall on this very topic). But how seriously are we going to take bitching about digital sound from a man who still owes XM Satellite Radio half a year's worth of weekly programs? Modern Times, Prometheus's 579th album and his 31st of brand-new material for the Columbia Records label, even comes packaged with a slipcard advertising the subscription-only station.

Besides, whether he knew it or not, Dylan was waiting for the compact disc. Back when his fellow pop-cult upstarts (the Beatles, the Stones) were capping their albums at around 45 minutes, Dylan was averaging 50 minutes a disc. He's even more long-winded now: Modern Times is nearly 63 minutes long, longer than 2001's "Love and Theft" (57:24) but shorter than 1997's Time Out of Mind (72:44). Technology ain't what it used to be, but you sure can stretch out with it.

Stretching out is what Dylan spends most of Modern Times doing, which makes the overall critical reception of it (as of this writing, reviews-aggregator website averaged the album's review-numbers at 88 out of 100) somewhat strange. When was the last time anyone frothed over a relaxed Bob Dylan album? This is one of the most leisurely records, not just of Dylan's career, but on the current market; it makes the Brightblack Morning Light album sound like workout music. A few people are disappointed by this; critic Greil Marcus, the author of two books about Dylan, noted during a Labor Day appearance at Seattle's Bumbershoot arts festival that the album sounded "light" to him. Fair enough: Dynamism isn't Modern Times's strong suit, and even the kind of blues numbers ("Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "Someday Baby," here) that acted as manic punctuation on "Love and Theft" shuffle more than stomp here.

But Modern Times isn't really a mood record—or at least, not the same kind of mood record Time Out of Mind was, and not just because the mood itself is altogether different. Time felt doomy, flinty, like a gathering storm; Times is laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes woolgathering, and it fits him like his twitty little vaudeville mustache, meaning you might well suspect there's something off about it. Well, you're right—not so much because the mood is false, but because Dylan is constitutionally incapable of relaxing, even when his music does. And unlike Tom Waits, with his "Look at me, I'm craaazy junkyard man!" routine, Dylan doesn't need to prove what a weirdo he is. He lets it come to you as easily as it comes to him.

Take the album's opening number, "Thunder on the Mountain." The song's title is dull and portentous, the kind of thing you'd expect from a veteran in grand-old-man mode. (Along with Modern Times's second cut, "Spirit on the Water," it inspired a wag on the I Love Music internet message board to cook up a few similar phony titles for the album's tracklist, e.g., "Zeitgeist on the Prairie.") A dozen little nuances give "Thunder" its roll: swoops into high tenor (not falsetto; his voice couldn't possibly at this point) at the end of lines ("The sun keeps shining/And the north wind keeps picking up speed"); guitar, piano, and drums at a sturdy gallop. Rhythmically, it recalls a more loping "Highway 61 Revisited."

The 1965 song was a comic jeer at institutional hypocrisy; in 2006, Dylan is both resigned to it ("I've already confessed, no need to confess again") and a lot more pissed off. The lyric, "I'll say this, I don't give a damn about your dreams" boils down the earlier tune's bad feeling and leaves out its carnival atmosphere. But "Thunder" is also genuinely empathetic, even when Dylan hides it behind jokes: "I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows/I've got the pork chop, she's got the pie/She ain't no angel and neither am I," or "I've been sitting down studying the art of love/I think it'll fit me like a glove," or my favorite: "Feel like my soul is beginning to expand/Look into my heart and you will sort of understand." "Sort of" is right, especially once you've had a listen to "Someday Baby" ("Well, I don't want to brag/I'm gonna wring your neck") or "Rollin' and Tumblin'" ("Some lazy slut has charmed away my brains"). Dylan may sing "For the love of god, take pity on yourself" in "Thunder," but he'll be damned if he takes it on anybody else. (Apparent exception: Alicia Keys, who gets a well-why-not? mention in the song.)

Maybe that's why, for all its hate and love and theft (lots of titles and individual lines taken from other sources: "Rollin' and Tumblin'," for example), Modern Times comes across equally strongly as a record about real events—the first Dylan album to do so in ages—Desire (1976) and Infidels (1983) were the most recent, and Modern Times is easily better than both. As the earlier examples show, Dylan isn't precisely "civilized" even at age 65; unruliness is what he does best. It's also what he's evoked in song longer and better than just about anyone. Even when he sticks to a story, as on much of Blood on the Tracks, Dylan's verses sprawl, and as often as not he jettisons narrative in favor of snapshots that add up to a whole, as on the new album's "Thunder on the Mountain" or "The Levee's Gonna Break" (or earlier songs like Blonde on Blonde's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again").

But "Levee" and "Workingman's Blues #2" are as clearly and directly about real events as anything he wrote back when he wanted to be Woody Guthrie. "Workingman's Blues" is precisely what it says it is: "The buying power of the proletariat's gone down/Money's gotten shallow and weak." (As Greil Marcus pointed out in Seattle, Dylan sings the word "proletariat" as naturally as he might the word "baby.") "Levee," another sly, mid-tempo shuffle, is in some ways more ambiguous: Are "I've paid my time and now I'm as good as new/They can't take me back unless they want me to" the words of the prisoners escaped from the New Orleans jails, their records erased? Mostly, though, it chews up any doubts about its meaning and spits them into the oncoming waves: "Some people on the road carrying everything they own/Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones."

That's certainly how Modern Times's chilling finale, "Ain't Talkin'," sounds. "Walking till I'm clean out of sight," he mutters over brushed drums and delicate guitar picking. "I'm not nursing any superfluous fears." Forget about the present Dylan seems so annoyed by: This is the future, for all of us. Dylan sounds like he's ready to take it on—or to take it as it comes.

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