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  • artist: Bob Dylan
  • album: Modern Times
  • format: 16-bit CD + DVD
  • performance: 9
  • sound: 8
  • release year: 2006
  • label: Columbia
  • reviewed by: John Sutton-Smith

Modern Times, the title of Bob Dylan’s 44th album in his incomparable career, is more than a tip of the hat to his 20th century celluloid doppelganger, Charlie Chaplin; it is very much a companion piece as grand commentary, and in capturing both the spirit and the underbelly of a nation socially and politically in turmoil, as did the great filmmaker’s 1936 masterwork of the same name.

The third album in what must be considered a remarkable creative reinvigoration over the last decade, is a sprawling, commanding work. Refining the blues-drenched Americana and bittersweet ballads of Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, Modern Times is quite possibly the best of the three, mining the whole American musical lexicon and offering commanding moments both in song and voice that even recall earlier moments on monumental works like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.

High praise indeed, and only time and history can validate that declarative review, but there is no doubt that Dylan in his sixties has had a quite wondrous rebirth, opening up in documentary, book, as a dj of quixotic and illuminating taste, and on a never-ending series of tours which may perhaps be the primary force behind this rejuvenation in general and the majestic power of Modern Times in particular.

Dylan’s facility and command of his lyrical imagery, seemingly stilted and missing for many years in the ‘80s and ‘90s, is back. In the hands of an older, wiser man, for sure, but it remains defiantly courageous, cantankerous and acutely aware of the world around him, on personal, social and political levels. Although the 10 songs here mirror an ancient time and a worldly wisdom beyond the realms of modern pop, this is music as urgent and contemporary as Jack White and m. ward. There are references here to musical history, even a wry mention of Alicia Keyes (probably not the singer), yet also a multi-layer of meaning and mystery, and staggering poetry that only adds to a canon equaled by few countrymen, Whitman, Frost, Sandburg and Ginsberg at most.

His themes remain huge and often hard to grasp – the mysteries of romance, death and time, the fear of loss and the hope for redemption – bound in traditional musical imagery, folklore and myth. Dylan gave a hint of this creative direction in the early ‘90s, really the start of his return to health physically, spiritually and musically. The two modest but liberating albums of blues and folk covers from the dawn of modern music, World Gone Wrong and Good As I Been to You, provide a template to and echo resoundingly in Dylan‘s current work.

The roots of the blues found in those songs by Mississippi John Hurt, Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller and many others are the prime source for the essential soul and spirit of many of these current songs, and Dylan has really acknowledged as such – in Love and Theft’s “High Water Everywhere (for Charlie Patton),” for example, written around Patton’s earlier tune. Let’s not forget Dylan has been reworking songs in the old folk tradition since his very first album. He goes even further here in mining the past with his own re-imagined versions of blues canons in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” as well as powerful turns on “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Workingman’s Blues Part 2,” a thematic nod to his recent tour partner Merle Haggard’s country anthem “Working Man’s Blues.” Using these musical milestones as reference points gives his new songs a powerful sense of time and place, as some things change and some remain the same. Like many of Bob’s great lyrics throughout time, they may not seem to mean anything; they mean what you want them to mean. But the imagery, rich and uncompromising, is magical and unmistakable.

Sprinkled throughout Modern Times are the upbeat blues shuffles that have always formed the basis of Dylan’s musical oxygen, and with this band they are performed with righteous energy. The opening “Thunder on the Mountain,” with its Johnny B. Goode groove and saucy lyrics (“I got the pork chops, she got the pie/She ain’t no angel and neither am I”), is a barnburner, and “Someday Baby” is an understated, uptempo blues that slyly laments “Living this way ain’t a natural thing to do/Why was I born to love you?”

“The Levee’s Gonna Break” is a perfect example of Dylan’s uncanny ability to write in both the present and the past at the same time. With yet another title and topic taken from musical history, the sense of New Orleans’ recent fate is unmistakable – floods have inspired a lot of blues – but the song as a whole, like all these pieces, commands a universal sensibility and an innate timelessness.

The album is tent-poled by a couple of Dylan’s finest romantic ballads, “Spirit on the Water” and “When the Deal Goes Down,” along with the elegiac social anthem “Workingman’s Blues Part 2” and the seductive grand finale “Ain’t Talkin’.” A companion piece melodically to Time Out of Mind’s “Highlands,” it is a deceptively dense saga of bluesy couplets – sung somewhere in a range between J.J. Cale and Mark Knopfler – that grows in emotional intrigue upon repeated listening.

It is entirely possible history will prove that we are in the middle of a new golden age of Dylan. At the very least, it should let the young kids know what all the fuss is about. As he sings at the end of “Spirit in the Water,” “You think I’m over the hill/You think I’m past my prime/Let me see what you’ve got/We can have a whoppin’ good time.”

Extra Features
The accompanying DVD on the deluxe limited edition contains four relatively recent videos: "Blood in my Eyes" is the most interesting, beautifully shot in black and white around the Camden High Street in north London and suggesting a bit of the vibe of the “Don't Look Back” documentary. The eye-opening Grammy Awards appearance of "Love Sick" and the take of "Cold Irons Bound" played live on the soundstage during the filming of “Masked and Anonymous” are pretty straightforward performance video clips of stellar Time Out of Mind tracks, while the Oscar-winning video of "Things Have Changed" sports a playfully expressive Dylan alone with the camera, intercut with shots from the “Wonder Boys” movie.

The deluxe edition also comes in a stylish booklet with the dramatic film noirish, Jules Dassin-type shot of New York at night on the cover, and contains a series of previously unseen photos, basic track notes (but no lyrics, as ever) and an old time cardboard sleeve reflecting the 78rpm packages of long ago.

Produced by Dylan himself under his chilly nom-de-knobs Jack Frost, the sound is rich and indelible and Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded this good in 20 years, maybe more.

If it is indeed the road that has been Dylan’s recent muse, then the band, with ace guitarists Denny Freeman and Stu Kimball, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, bassist Tony Garnier and drummer George Recile, has been his vehicle, a streamlined, chrome-plated, high-octane Cadillac with fins, a modern machine from another time. The road has hewn the band into a skin-tight knit blues combo that transfuses skiffle, rockabilly and American myth into a wholly new, yet fundamentally traditional strain of rock and roll, full of fire and brimstone, insight and tenderness, wit and wisdom, that continues to leave the younger generations in the dust.

Reprinted with permission from AVRev.com
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