Bob Dylan “Modern Times”

10 October 2019

Here it is. After five years of waiting, Bob Dylan’s fans have their answer: Yes, he’s still got it.

“Modern Times” is hope for those of us who enjoy great music and disdain today’s lack thereof. The fact that Bob Dylan can produce an album so worthy of acclaim 40 years into his career kindles the bright flame of optimism in the hearts of fans everywhere.

The title “Modern Times” is a bit of a mystery. It seems to refer to “modern” not as in “current” but as in that mid-century “modern” we learn in English class. The cover photo of an old New York taxi hints at this, but the point is shown through the music. The sound moves from rock and roll to crooner style, to blues, to songs like “Nettie Moore,” which have no peer. In his great tradition of single-handedly revolutionizing sound, Dylan takes classic styles and makes them his own, refreshed and reborn.

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With the shortest song just under five minutes, Dylan remains the king of lyrics. The words are streams of images and love poems, biographies and aphorisms. A large part of the flow is religious scenes and statements.

Only music’s greatest poet could work such visions into his songs without making it a Christian-rock album. This talent is used to provoke quite different scenes, too. It is doubtful that anyone else could work in a line like “The buying power of the proletariat’s gone down” and get away with it, which is reminiscent of his younger compositions (including 1965’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” with its line “tax-deductible charity organization”).

Dylan seems to have developed an affinity for electric guitars and memories of his youth, with as many as three guitars going at once and several mentions of his father. This is a far cry from his beginning: 43 albums and 44 years ago, he was a solitary acoustic finger picker with songs about dying, sorrow and the like.

Some aspects of his earlier days do remain. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” seems quite similar to “Love and Theft” and “Summer Days.” Creating songs with the same sound but different lyrics is a method often utilized by Dylan in his younger days. Such classic reworked pairs include “Talking Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues” and “Talking New York.” Each only builds strength though its familiarity with the performer and listener.

In these “modern” times, Bob Dylan finds his best creative outlet in a mix of old sounds, familiar methods, and new inspirations. If it takes another five years for him to mull over what he has to say, we will be grateful for another morsel to add to his remarkable collection.

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