CK Retro Review: Modern Times by Bob DylanPosted: July 22, 2013
It took Bob Dylan nearly five years to follow up on “Love And Theft,” but 2006’s Modern Times was well worth the wait. Once again self-produced and featuring members of his touring band, the album continued Dylan’s amazing late-period hot streak. It has jumping blues tracks, romantic crooner-type material, and a moody, magnificent closing track to send us all off the bed with the covers pulled tight over our eyes. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Beyond The Horizon”- The music has a sleepy, island lilt to it, making the heaven Dylan promises in the song sound a lot like Honolulu. That soporific music and the song’s deeper themes of eternal love might be at cross purposes though, so this one is a near-miss.
9. “Spirit On The Water”- That jaunty little riff that anchors the song has an entrancing effect, which might make listeners feel like they’re in gentle territory here. Indeed, “Spirit On The Water” starts down that road, only to veer into darker territory down the line. The narrator seems a bit possessive of the woman he’s addressing, perhaps because he can feel his grip on her slipping. When he admits to killing a man in Paradise toward the song’s end against that supper club musical backing, this dreamy little track turns fascinatingly nightmarish in a hurry.
8. “Rollin’ And Tumblin’”- It’s a bit one-note lyrically, Dylan railing against the “lazy slut” who has beguiled him to the point of exasperation. What makes up for it is the kicking beat of George Receli and the band’s breathless performance, which gives extra oomph to every one of Bob’s ornery observations. Nothing new here, but well-executed.
7. “Someday Baby”- Dylan was right to choose this as the song which introduced the album to the world in promos and TV ads, because it’s got a rhythm that grabs and holds you throughout the entirety of the track. The lyrics are as accessible as Bob gets as well, a kiss-off to a lover who’s more trouble than she’s worth. The fact that the song was never played in live leads me to believe that Dylan wrote it for that mercenary purpose of hooking potential buyers, and it fills the bill effectively. Who knows? In a time when such things were possible for artists like Dylan, it might have been a hit single.
6. “The Levee’s Gonna Break”- As in “High Water (For Charley Patton)”, the waters roiling in Dylan’s narrative are of the figurative variety. Yet his protagonist in the song seems ready and prepared for the threat of the song’s title. His rough-and-ready attitude isn’t tempered one bit, as a matter of fact, and that spirit keeps this one from being a downer. With the band grinding it out behind him, Bob sounds as if he can ride the flood right to salvation.
5. “Nettie Moore”- Dylan the producer created an interesting arrangement for this song that doesn’t sound like it should work but does in spades. The creeping rhythm in the verses, like a tentative heartbeat, opens up into a gorgeously melancholy chorus. The lyrics work in much the same manner. Dylan’s narrator talks tough in the verses for the most part, at least until the end when the strong sunlight reveals his misery. That was made plain anyway in the refrains, when the title character’s memory haunts him and the whole world darkens before him.
4. “When The Deal Goes Down”- These ballads that Bob usually drops on every album are essential to his winning formula. In a way, they humanize him, showing the warm feelings that the gruff, bluesy songs sometimes eschew. In the case of “When The Deal Goes Down,” Dylan takes an old Bing Crosby song and does his own version of crooning that may not be as smooth as Der Bingle but certainly fits the open-hearted content of the lyric. There are a lot of things wrong with the world and with the narrator, but the love of his life redeems and rejuvenates him to deal with all that. To reciprocate, he offers to be there for her at the time in her life when she needs it most.
3. “Thunder On The Mountain”- After a couple crashing chords open up the song and the album, Dylan’s band takes a Chuck Berry groove and slows it down ever so slightly to squeeze all the juice out of it. The lyrics present Bob at his feistiest and most fun as he inhabits a fearless, strutting character that, one might hypothesize, might be the songwriter’s id cut loose. He’s got an army of orphans, a belly full of cow milk, and an expanding soul. You can delve into those lyrics for hidden clues, or you can just rock out with the band. Either way, “Thunder On The Mountain” goes down as one of Dylan’s finest album-opening salvos.
2. “Workingman’s Blues”- So how does Dylan make salient points about the problems of labor in America without making it sound like a sociology lesson? By letting those views emanate from a character who is no saint, who’s hounded by heartbreak, but whose biggest problem may be the dignity stolen from him when he lost his job. Thus Bob can get away with lines about competing abroad and the “buying power of the proletariat” because he puts a human face on the problem. After the elegant interplay between guitar, piano, and violin, the martial beat in the refrains is a sad call to arms for those singing those same blues.
1.”Ain’t Talkin’”- Dylan’s later work is notable for the songs’ refusal to be pinned down to a single emotion, as Bob often takes many detours and backtracks before reaching his ultimate destination. Yet “Ain’t Talkin’” is powered by its single-mindedness, as the narrator is bent on revenge of the most violent kind before a fast-approaching apocalypse occurs to settle all debts. His only deviation from his quest is to catalog his many ills and woes (for a guy who says he’s not talking, he sure goes on a while), and the only bright side you get is the oddly apropos heavenly flourish at song’s end. Maybe Dylan doesn’t create a warm and cuddly character here, but he certainly seems like the ideal spokesman for modern times and Modern Times, since both seem to be teetering on the edge of sanity right along with him.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out the link below to my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available from all major online booksellers in both print and e-book editions.)