NOTE FROM BB: A quote from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress:
This Hill, though high, I covet to ascend,
The difficulty will not me offend,
For I perceive the way to life lies here;
Come, pluck up, heart; let's neither faint nor fear:
Better, though difficult, the right way to go,
Than wrong, though easy, where the end is woe.
The Pilgrim’s Progress of Bob Dylan
New York Times, Aug. 20, 2006
By JON PARELES
THE title of Bob Dylan’s new album, “Modern Times,” is mostly subterfuge with a little irony thrown in. The particulars of the present mean less and less to the songwriter who radically and irrevocably changed popular music in the 1960’s. Back then Mr. Dylan transfigured pop songwriting with the shocks and disjunctions of modernism: ideas he found equally in the avant-garde and in old, weird folk songs. But lately he has made himself an emissary from a reinvented yesteryear, where he finds clues to eternal truths in both the blues and the Bible.
For Mr. Dylan there’s no difference now between an itinerant bluesman and a haggard pilgrim. “I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned,” he sings. “Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.”
Mr. Dylan’s three studio albums over the past decade all have music grounded in the blues and lyrics as wildly nonlinear as anything from his 1960’s zenith, but weighted with a deep sense of mortality. “Time Out of Mind,” in 1997, broke a seven-year songwriting drought, followed by “ ‘Love and Theft’ ” in 2001 and now “Modern Times.” With these three albums Mr. Dylan, now 65, has made himself rock’s proudest codger.
He doesn’t pretend to be young or hip. His lyrics, and sometimes his music, are studded with quotations and allusions spanning more than a century of Americana. He magnifies every scrape, crack and scar in his voice, and he ignores the latest recording styles by sticking to handmade, realtime music. (“Modern Times” was recorded with his road band, and it suggests live after-hours rehearsals, complete with stumbles.)
Musically — and only musically — Mr. Dylan is conservative verging on classicist, holding on to rootsy forms; “Modern Times” is an album of blues, ballads and latter-day parlor songs. Philosophically he’s far more tangled. He’s variously an absurdist and a moralizer, a populist and a loner, and an iconoclast haunted by God.
For the bluesy stretches of “Modern Times” Mr. Dylan plays a spurned lover, heartsick and vindictive. There’s pain in his tattered voice but also the adamant, inscrutable, almost impersonal tone of bygone rural blues singers. His rewrite of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” (which is credited to Mr. Dylan, although it uses the venerable riff, the melody and some lines from the familiar blues) flips from hope to wrath in an instant. “I got up this mornin’, seen the rising sun return/Sooner or later, you too shall burn,” he sings, pausing just long enough to fling the word “burn” with an implacable sneer, a blues singer turned hellfire preacher.
“Modern Times” doesn’t announce a conversion like the evangelical Christian phase Mr. Dylan went through as the 1970’s ended. He’s not proselytizing now; faith doesn’t offer him anything as clear as a satisfied mind. (The new songs are even further away from the hints of Orthodox Judaism he dispensed in the mid-1980’s; in the album’s first track, he’s eating pork chops.) Yet a longing for salvation surfaced in songs like “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” on “Time Out of Mind” and “Cry A While” on “ ‘Love and Theft.’ ” The new album moves thoughts of God closer to the foreground: they show up in at least 7 of the 10 songs this time. Two gently swaying love ballads — “When the Deal Goes Down” and “Beyond the Horizon” — can also be taken as avowals of faith, thinking about death and an afterlife.
Or maybe it just seems that way right now. As evangelical Christians have seized political power and cultural visibility, religious messages have moved into mainstream pop, with openly Christian rockers on MTV and shout-outs to God by everyone from Jessica Simpson to Underoath. But Mr. Dylan is anything but trendy. In his songs faith is no panacea; it’s personal and convoluted, the reckonings of a man who’s contemplating death with no certainty of redemption. “Today I’ll stand in faith and raise the voice of praise/The sun is strong, I’m standing in the light,” he sings in “Nettie Moore,” only to follow with a twist: “I wish to God that it were night.”
There was a 19th-century song called “Nettie Moore,” about a slave sold away from the man who loved her. Mr. Dylan took its title and the first line of its chorus and also borrowed some lines made famous by Robert Johnson and W. C. Handy, surrounded them with his own images of separation and restlessness, and constructed an eccentric song; with alternating sections of 11 and 14 beats, its melody climbs painstakingly and then tumbles down. Mr. Dylan writes now as if American historical memory washes through his consciousness only to leave him more isolated.
He hasn’t been a recluse. In the five years between studio albums, Mr. Dylan has toured steadily while offering more personal glimpses than he has in decades. He wrote the autobiographical “Chronicles, Volume One” (Simon & Schuster); its poetically explosive prose describes those episodes it chooses to cover while evading long, crucial stretches of Mr. Dylan’s life.
He appeared as a creaky outlaw rock star in the movie “Masked and Anonymous,” a shaggy-dog parable that shows how well Mr. Dylan understands his public image. He spoke directly about his early years in “No Direction Home,” the Martin Scorsese documentary that focused on the way Mr. Dylan hit New York and rock culture like a fireball in the early 1960’s. And he has been doing a weekly show for XM Satellite Radio, his “Theme Time Radio Hour,” where he spins a lot of old, crackly, startling songs — on themes like drinking, fatherhood or the devil — and makes gnomic comments. Perhaps he decided that was enough candor for a while: “I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again,” he sings in “Thunder on the Mountain.”
“Modern Times” sounds more tentative than either of its predecessors. Onstage Mr. Dylan’s touring band regularly supercharges his songs. But on “Modern Times” the musicians play as if they’re just feeling their way into the tunes. Mr. Dylan (under the pseudonymn Jack Frost) produced “Modern Times” himself, as he did with the more aggressive “ ‘Love and Theft.’ ” So the new album’s just-jamming style is clearly a deliberate choice. Perhaps it’s intended to make the songs more approachable; with the drummer using brushes, Mr. Dylan can sing quietly.
One song, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” rises to the hymnlike majesty of the Band. (If there’s any connection on this album to the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times,” it’s in the song’s complaints about low wages.) But many of the tracks turn out lackadaisical instead. A savage kiss-off, “Someday Baby” (which is a crafty 15-bar blues), isn’t cutting enough, and the lovelorn “Spirit on the Water” just putters along. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” — another old blues commandeered by Mr. Dylan — becomes almost blasé, despite lyrics that hint, now and then, at the catastrophe of New Orleans: “Some people on the road carryin’ everything they own/Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones.” The songs will only get better on tour. This month Mr. Dylan is playing minor-league ballparks.
Yet the album’s subdued tone perfectly suits its last, best and spookiest song: “Ain’t Talkin.’ ” It too is a blues variant, fingerpicked in a minor key as Mr. Dylan sings in a narrow, embittered voice. He’s on foot, just “walking through the cities of the plague.” There’s a woman he left behind, a father’s death to avenge. He vows to slaughter his opponents; he wonders if he can get heavenly aid. “The suffering is unending,” he sings. “Every nook and cranny has its tears.” He’s a weary traveler, a bluesman and a pilgrim, on a dark and unforgiving road.