“Well, the future for me is already a thing of the past,” Bob Dylan crooned on 2001’s “Love and Theft.” And he wasn’t kidding. On “Modern Times,” his first new album in five years, the poet laureate of rock ‘n’ roll plunges deep into the bygone days of American popular music and resurfaces with a collection of gems that seem to ring out from some ancient ether. The 65-year-old songster has spent a career resurrecting antediluvian melodies and phrases, but his music never sounded so retrograde. “Modern Times” has the austerity and somber grace of a well-traveled antique.
Produced by Dylan himself under the pseudonym Jack Frost, “Modern Times” follows a steady ebb and flow through 10 tracks ranging from blues to jazz to folk balladry, and his touring band responds effortlessly to each successive shift in style. Dylan’s fierce growl has softened into more of a purr, and he delivers his lines with uncanny precision — his tone at turns rollicking, blistering, ominous and tender. The album credits Dylan with playing guitar, but most tracks find him at the piano, an instrument he has switched over to in concert during the past several months.
The most fascinating aspect of “Modern Times” both musically and lyrically is the continual interplay between the album’s faster blues shuffles and its more subdued numbers — a tension sustained from start to finish. The album’s opener, “Thunder On The Mountain,” chugs along to a boogie-woogie piano rhythm as Dylan boasts and cracks jokes between Denny Freeman’s guitar fills.
“I’ve been sittin’ down studyin’ the art of love/ I think it’ll fit me like a glove” he sings in one verse, and then in another declares: “Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches/ I recruit my army from the orphanages.” This is Dylan the maverick, the rough-and-tumble country gentleman who will stake his life on his word. The world may be mad and his woman may be doing him wrong, but he’s at least going to fight tooth and nail to defend his honor against faithlessness and vice.
The same swagger and menace can be found on “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “Someday Baby,” both of which are appropriated from old Muddy Waters tunes. In the latter song, modeled after Muddy Waters’ bouncing “Trouble No More,” Dylan offers his lover a foreboding threat: “I don’t wanna brag/ I’m gonna wring your neck/ When all else fails, I’ll make it a matter of self-respect.” Dylan’s blues on “Modern Times” are the blues of a man who will do anything to convince himself he just doesn’t give a damn anymore.
But as soon as the exercised temerity is over and the air of invulnerability fades, memory and conscience return, bringing with them an inevitable sense of sorrow and frailty. The slower tunes on “Modern Times” are inflected with Dylan’s knowledge of his own human weaknesses, from the lilting jazz entreaty of “Spirit On The Water” to the doleful cowboy waltz “When The Deal Goes Down,” where Dylan comes to grips with time gone by and wrestles with a love he just can’t shake.
The climax of “Modern Times” and the true masterpiece of the album is “Workingman’s Blues #2,” a towering and gut-wrenching ballad named after a Merle Haggard song. Singing over a measured two-step that sounds as if it came from the Civil War, Dylan sounds wounded and lost, attempting to salvage his dignity and hold back tears in the face of a world that has beaten him down: “I can see for myself that the sun is sinkin’/ How I wish you were here to see/ Tell me now, am I wrong in thinkin’/ That you have forgotten me?” Not a syllable is wasted, and every word is forged in iron. Donnie Herron’s wailing violin in the background adds a superbly elegiac tinge to one of Dylan’s finest efforts.
The remainder of the album descends into a solemn aftermath, with Dylan spinning out final reflections on Providence, love and mercy. By the conclusion of the jeremiad closer “Ain’t Talkin’,” there indeed seems to be little left to say. “Modern Times” settles into silence as naturally as the sun sets into the sea.
There is perhaps less irony to the title “Modern Times” than one might initially suspect. For although these 10 songs seem to have been rescued from a bygone era, they manage somehow not to be anachronisms. To the contrary: They are the material that occupies the mind of one of our greatest artists, right now at the edge of the third millennium. These are Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, rendered by a master at the top of his game.