Modern Times is the third album of Bob Dylan's career renaissance that began in 1997 with the existential darkness of Time Out of Mind and continuing through the 2001 mixed collection of vamping blues and jazz ballads, Love and Theft. Though Modern Times, possibly named after the Charlie Chaplin film, doesn't have the dark edge of Time or the variety of Love and Theft, it is a thematically unified album; every song concerns love or mortality or both. Dylan insists he didn't create a trilogy, though, because the first album "doesn't fit."
Modern Times has received rave reviews across the country; English critic Alexis Petridis, though giving the album four stars, has even questioned the sanity of his fellow reviewers regarding Dylan:
"What is it about him that makes otherwise intelligent men abandon all sense of rationality, and write stuff like the last Guardian review of Dylan live, which opened with the critic announcing he was there to 'touch the hem,' then got progressively less objective?"
Certainly the critical reaction to Modern Times created a major news event, something rare for any popular musician. The answer may found in Dylan's relevance after 45 years in the music business. In Scorsese's documentary, No Direction Home, Dylan remarks that an artist is "always becoming." He still tours and records at 65, a time when most rock stars have died, retired to oblivion in the Bahamas, or become passé.
Dylan isn't necessarily blazing any new trails or "breaking new ground" with Modern Times but rather he is carving the old wood already cut by him and others. In fact, Modern Times is not very "modern" since many of the songs evoke earlier ballads and dance-hall waltzes Dylan's parents may have heard on the radio in the 1940s.
In addition to Bing Crosby, other ghosts crowd this album: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Slim Harpo (on "Someday Baby"). "Nettie Moore" is a new version of a sentimental 19th century song about a slave woman sold down the river. Dylan's not plagiarizing here, but rewriting an old ballad, giving it a powerful new interpretation, not unlike what Keats did, beating the masters at their own game. Dylan can transform conventional songs into lyrical cries of joy and outrage. The darker songs describe a world "turning black" without the songwriter preaching or being too specific; there are no topical protest songs here.
Is Modern Times a masterwork, as Rolling Stone proclaimed or simply "pleasant and unassuming" as Petridis suggests? Posterity will decide, but it is a major Dylan album. "Thunder on the Mountain" is a Chuck Berry-styled rocker with a sly sexual allusion to Alicia Keys that has inspired much discussion. The band rocks behind Dylan's spirited vocal and there is a wonderful tension between the words and the music. The strange lyrics, "I'm gonna raise me an army/some tough sons of bitches/ gonna raise my army from the old religions/ I been to St. Hermit, said my religious vows/ I suck the milk out of a thousand cows" seem even more strange sung to "Johnny be Good" rhythms. "Spirit on the Water" is a touching waltz ballad about love, "Rollin' and Tumblin'" reworks a Muddy Waters song, and "Workingman's Blues #2" wanders into Merle Haggard and Bruce Springsteen territory.
Every Dylan album, even a minor one, has at least one gem showing everyday life in a new way that inspires reflection. The last three songs of Modern Times provide that epiphany. "Nettie Moore" evokes the melancholy of the restless narrator in four line stanzas with a heartbreaking chorus sweetened by strings. Ironically, the separation from the mysterious Nettie Moore is the fault of the roaming singer/narrator. This eccentric blues switches time, and some lines are longer than others, straining the music. Dylan fits it all in with a passionate vocal. In an interview, Dylan said "Nettie Moore" gave him the most difficulty but he was anxious to record it.
"The Levee's Gonna Break" with a nod to Memphis Minnie evokes memories of Hurricane Katrina, but Dylan has a universal metaphor in mind: the flood brings death and rebirth as well. Again, there's a dramatic tension between the grim words and the rollicking flow of music.
On the last song, all the critics agree, including Petridis. "Ain't Talkin'" is Dylan's new masterpiece. It provides a link to Time out of Mind and the song, "Highlands," reminiscent of a Samuel Beckett monologue. In "Ain't Talkin'," a man leaves a mythical garden, gets struck on the head, and then treks across a nightmare landscape of death and plagues. His horse is blind, his mule is sick, and he is out to avenge his father's death--not unlike Hamlet. The language of "Ain't Talkin'" is both biblical and Faulknerian southern gothic: "In the human heart, an evil spirit can dwell/ I'm trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others/ But, oh, mother, things ain't going well."
The simple guitar and strings in a minor key create an ominous chill. The dirge has no resolution, except it ends with a rich major chord.
And so the album ends, leaving the listener to meditate on these apocalyptic visions. Modern Times reveals Dylan once again in control of his creative powers and will take its place in the Dylan canon of important work.