Modern Times – Bob Dylan
Columbia 82876 87606-2
All critics know that negative comments stick with readers more easily than positive ones. In the annals of wishful criticism, though, nothing beats Ralph J. Gleason’s “We’ve got Bob Dylan back again” from 1970. As someone who tuned into the Dylan story when his newest record was Infidels, I remember being curious about whether Dylan was going to be back with each new record. Those were the days when he was cranking out one a year, apparently because no one told him he didn’t have to, and my optimism quickly vanished.
Of course, Dylan was there, but the question was which Dylan we were getting. We all know which one Gleason wanted. Instead, we got many others. There was the ham-fisted message-monger of the late ’70s and ’80s. There was the for-cultists-only obscurantist of the two early ’90s no-originals releases which ended his album-a-year era. And there was the gifted songwriter who granted us major returns to form such as Blood On The Tracks and minor ones like Oh Mercy.
Since 1997, though, we’ve had another Dylan, and he’s a nice one to have. He’s an agreeably cranky old codger with a bulging notebook and a willingness to share an hour’s worth of it once every few years. His protest days are gone when he sings “everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today,” it’s just a rhyme for “I want some real good woman to do just what I say.” He’s surly one moment, self-deprecating the next, never goes long without bringing up one romantic wound or another, and occasionally shares stuff like the Alicia Keys fantasy which appears within the first minute of this new disc. He makes many references to folk favorites which deserve further research. And he puts together crack string bands, although, aside from an intro here and an interlude there, he rarely lets them do more than run the changes.
Modern Times is not a letdown from his previous two releases in this vein, but it’s also not an advance. His 2006 string band sounds more timid than the 2001 incarnation (from which only bassist Tony Garnier remains), which works for the brooders, but tames the rockers. The schmaltzy love songs are in overly ample supply, although one of them supplies one of the disc’s greatest zingers, in which the man who once titled an album Saved frets about getting into paradise. I had a bad 1985 flashback when — during "Workingman’s Blues #2" — he sang “the buying power of the proletariat’s gone down” over music which sounded like his version of “We Are The World” pomp, although, thankfully, the song in question quickly moved back into more personal terrain. Some will tout “The Levee’s Gonna Break” as a Katrina comment, but for a guy with so many flood songs in his past it isn’t specific enough to cut it. (You were expecting him to find a rhyme for FEMA?)
It’s easy to nitpick like this when you’re dealing with a guy who was on top of the world once. This may be why Dylan, still insecure after all these years, comments “some day you’ll be glad to have me around” as the disc ambles to a close. Still, we should be glad to have him, and, fortunately, it seems that most of us are. Gleason must be smiling in his grave.