Dylan bringing it all back again


August 27, 2006


Oh, that Bob: What a card. Forty-four albums into one of the most storied careers in the history of recorded music, fans know better than to expect a dramatic musical reinvention in the final act. At age 65, the singer-songwriter is a genre unto himself, and his new album is another collection of "Dylan music," pure and simple. But the title, "Modern Times," which will be released on Tuesday, might con you into thinking the old sage has been inspired to drop some wisdom about current affairs -- and Lord knows, we could use a new "Masters of War" for these particular troubled times.

Silly you! Any real Dylan fan knows better than to expect truth in advertising from this musical icon, perverse imp and arch-ironist nonpareil, and "Modern Times" is in fact one of the most retro albums he's ever made. The music is firmly rooted in his beloved country-blues and other sounds predating the rock 'n' roll explosion that began in the second half of the last century, while the lyrics -- with a few notable and jarring exceptions -- are steeped in Old Testament visions of a harsh and sometimes vindictive God, with the biggest hope of redemption coming not in the afterlife but in the arms of one's true love, here and now.

No doubt about it: Dylan knows he's approaching the inevitable conclusion of a road that once seemed never-ending, and he's looking back and taking stock. In the five years since his last studio album, he's given us the first installment of his autobiography -- albeit in the form of the surreal, elliptical and highly selective Chronicles, Volume One -- as well as Martin Scorsese's authorized and slightly more linear though ultimately no more revealing documentary, "No Direction Home." Now comes an album that his longtime label Columbia Records bills as the third part of a trilogy that began with "Time Out of Mind" in 1997 and continued with "Love and Theft," released on Sept. 11, 2001.

Sho' nuff, Grandpa Bob is still in geezer mode, though as he proves on "Theme Time Radio Hour," his weekly show for XM Satellite Radio, he's never more vital and alive than when he's indulging himself in sounds that he loves, even if they are often more than 50 or 60 years old. "You think I'm over the hill/ You think I'm past my prime/Let me see what you got/We can have a whoppin' good time," Dylan sings in the final stanza of the second track here, "Spirit on the Water." And that's as good a thematic summation of the new disc as we're going to get -- even if the 10 tracks aren't quite as much of a "whoppin' good time" as Bob promises.

Self-produced under the pseudonym Jack Frost and recorded in rough-and-ready, live-in-the-studio, warts-and-all fashion with his current touring band, Dylan's latest isn't as strong as its two predecessors, partly because the roadhouse vibe seems more forced this time around, but primarily because the grooves are more monotonous. The brushed snare drum, country-blues shuffle dominates on every track, except for the slower ballads, and long before the disc is over, you find yourself wishing that just once the boss had given his whip-crack band permission to kick things into a higher gear.

Still, after all the music he's already given us, Dylan certainly has the right to coast if he chooses, simply relishing the sound of his own famously raspy growl against these lazy musical settings. And in the process, he does toss out plenty of intriguing lyrics, from the positively bizarre and already well-publicized nod to an R&B babe in "Thunder on the Mountain" ("Well, there's hot stuff here and it's everywhere I go/I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys ... I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be/I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee"), to what may or may not be a topical consideration of the fate of New Orleans in "The Levee's Gonna Break" ("If it keep on rainin', levee gonna break/Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take").

But with the exception of the closing track "Ain't Talkin'," one of the spookiest songs he's ever written, Dylan disappoints with all of the slower tunes on "Modern Times." Reveling in one old-time country-blues shuffle after another is all well and good, but Dylan's inexplicable fondness for smarmy '30s and '40s balladry somewhere between Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby resulted in the worst moments on "Love and Theft," and he's back at it again here with even more dire results on "Spirit on the Water," "When the Deal Goes Down" and "Beyond the Horizon."

"I'm old and I'm weary," Dylan sings on the latter. These slow and schmaltzy tracks are the only times on "Modern Times" where that seems to be true, and they drag down an album that could otherwise have been much stronger and a lot more fun -- even if that's something else you'd never have expected from ol' Bob.

Bob Dylan will premiere his new album, "Modern Times," Monday on XM Satellite Radio, a day before its official release. A marathon of his "Theme Time Radio Hour" will follow beginning Sept. 1. In addition, fans who purchase "Modern Times," or any other Dylan CD via select retailers, will receive a bonus disc with Dylan's recent baseball-themed episode of "Theme Time."