Modern Times

I skipped Bob Dylan’s acclaimed 2006 album Modern Times when it was released. Dylan had fallen off my radar again, I had a baby and I just wasn’t in a space where I was listening to any new music. This is another album that I’ve only begun listening to this week as part of the project. I will say that it took me a little bit of time to warm up to it. I listened to it twice on a two hour bike ride last weekend (the album is 63 minutes, which made it excellent for pacing my ride) and didn’t much care for it. On those first listenings nothing leapt out at me – it has a pretty constant tone to it, and lacks the strong ups and downs of some of his other albums. I came home and looked it up, and found myself surprised to see how unbelievably positively it had been received. A new masterpiece, I read. His first #1 album since Desire, I learned. The oldest living person to have the #1 album (at the time). 6.3 million copies sold. Two Grammy awards.
So I re-listened. Actually, I’ve listened to this twice a day (at a minimum) every day this week. On Tuesday and Saturday I had long travel days, and listened to it even more than that. I think that I have listened to this one Dylan album more than any other Dylan album this year. And, yes, now I get it.
Modern Times was not an album that I immediately got. And, indeed, a couple of the songs that I best liked early are the ones that I least like today. It’s an evolving thing for me, and it will probably remain so. I do think that it is worth the fuss.
1. “Thunder on the Mountain”. This opens really well with the piano, guitar, drums starting up as if the album is shutting down. It’s a song that marks Dylan’s new tendency of singing the name of the song as the first line of the song (he does this a lot on Tempest). It also includes the bizarre verse about Alicia Keys. Why, my wife asks, would he be singing about Alicia Keys? It’s entirely possible that he just likes the way that the name flows into the song – it fits nicely. It’s also possible that he’s telling us something that we’re not getting. It is true that she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, for example. Anyway, this is a good selection for the opener as it is probably the song that is easiest to like on the whole album. I can’t imagine anyone not really liking this one.”I recruit my army from the orphanages” is a great line, and so is “I got the pork chops, she got the pie”, and so is “I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams”. This doesn’t add up to a whole lot, but it has so many great individual pieces.
By the way, here’s Keys doing “Pressing On”, from Saved, which was released the year she was born in Hell’s Kitchen.
2. “Spirit on the Water”. This is clearly a song that is important to Dylan. He sells t-shirts with this title on them, and he has played this song a lot on his most recent tour. A slow swinging jazzy number, this is a pretty classic Dylan love song – why can’t you treat me right? but I love you so much anyway, baby. It has a nice closing verse for him to play live now:
You think I’m over the hill
You think I’m past my prime
Let me see what you got
We can have a whopping good time
The crowd yells “No” after both of those first lines, of course. The other thing is that Dylan really sings this one, and does a great job with it. A nice song.
3. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”. This is the Muddy Waters delta blues song that has been covered by literally everyone (Yardbirds, Cream, Captain Beefheart). Dylan adds new lyrics to it, but his version owes a clear and direct debt to Muddy Waters’s version. I like this one too!
4. “When the Deal Goes Down”. This one slows things down again, a slow ballad with minimal backing. Another sweet love song, a pledge of allegiance. I’m sort of surprised that this song has been picked up by other singers, because it is quite lovely and is the type of thing that can sound really effective for a piano crooner. I like this one too!
5. “Someday Baby”. I wrote about this at length earlier in the week. A good blues song that was the single from the album. Dylan won a Grammy for his singing on this, which is funny because I don’t think it is the best sung song on the album. I also like this. It’s becoming a theme.
6. “Workingman Blues #2”. On my first couple of listens to this album, this was one of the songs I liked best. Now it is one of the ones that I like least. It’s a sort of sequel to “Sundown for the Union”. It has a very despairing and fatalist take on the state of the American economy, beginning from the observation of declining wages and the outsourcing of jobs, but ultimately suggesting that there is nothing to be done about it. The chorus, which includes the lines
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line

Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues
Is firmly non-committal about what should be done about any of this fate that the singer is bemoaning, as if Dylan thinks that it doesn’t really matter. Musically, too, it is not committed – it seems to take a middle road. This is one of the only songs here that I don’t really like at all any more.
7. “Beyond the Horizon”. Another crooner song, and another pretty good one. This is probably the most minor of all the songs on Modern Times. It’s neither good nor bad, just a bit there. I like the guitar parts here and some of the dark imagery, but it isn’t a really memorable song.
8. “Nettie Moore”. This is my favourite song on the whole album, and one of my favourites by Dylan in the past few decades. I love everything about this one – the phrasing especially. The short Hemingway-esque declarations:
I’m the oldest son of a crazy man
I’m in a cowboy band
Lots of cryptic lyrics here, and lovely little pieces. The chorus, “Oh I miss you Nettie Moore, and my happiness is o’er…” is particularly striking. Great, great song.
9. “The Levee’s Gonna Break”. I don’t think that this is a bad song, but that single repeated guitar note that occurs about every two bars ABSOLUTELY DRIVES ME CRAZY! It’s like a form of torture, like lying in bed and listening to the drip of a faucet – all I can hear is the count in my head to the next identical guitar note. I can’t listen to this anymore. Too bad, because “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones” is a great line.
10. “Ain’t Talkin’”. The final, epic (almost nine minute) blues ramble is delicious. Dark and haunted. This one sounds like something from Oh Mercy but without the layers of goop that Daniel Lanois heaped onto that album. This album is produced by Dylan under his Jack Frost pseudonym, and I’m guessing that it is pretty close to the sound that he wants (considering how similar the next couple of albums are, that’s my safe guess), and it is interesting to try to imagine the Lanois albums with this sound. Anyway, this is another great late-night Dylan song about the darkness that surrounds us.
So, after some early skepticism, I find that I’m eight for ten on this album, and one of the songs I would like better with only the smallest change in production. It is a really great album, and it includes one song – “Nettie Moore” – that I would personally rank extremely highly in his catalogue. If I weren’t blogging this year I don’t think I would have ever spent enough time with this album to get this much out of it, so I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity.
Here’s the video for “Thunder on the Mountain”, all about Alicia Keys:

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