While Modern Times sounds fine upon first listen, it hasn’t achieved the stature alongside Bob’s previous two. There’s a warmth to the performance, and in his piano playing, and a near-swagger in his delivery. He sounds very confident without being arrogant. The production is more like “Love And Theft” than Time Out Of Mind, but that’s fine; there’s still a progression. Melodies abound, amid more lifting from standard blues songs and other sources. (Apparently having gotten away with plagiarizing from obscure Japanese novels, he decided to go all out and replicate the folk tradition of “borrowing”.)
Much of the album is based on the blues. “Thunder On The Mountain” is a nice shuffle that mentions Alicia Keys in the second verse for some reason, but “Someday Baby” is a rewrite of “Trouble No More”. Similarly, “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” doesn’t even bother changing the title. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” seems a little redundant in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, since he’d already written the definitive response four years early with “High Water” on his last album.
What are more successful are the songs that sound like they could have been sung by Bing Crosby, particularly the lovely “When The Deal Goes Down”. “Spirit On The Water” and “Beyond The Horizon” suggest a sleepy lope in the days of the pioneers, while “Nettie Moore”, with its seemingly shifting meter, could have come from the Civil War era. “Ain’t Talkin’” gets singled out as a grand epic, but the one-note delivery keeps it from sinking in properly.
He’s definitely learned to work with his voice, and it fits the stuff he’s singing. Too many classic rock singers destroy their voices early on and sound like a shell of what they used to be, and can’t sing their old material. In Bob’s case, he stopped yelling like he did through most of the ‘80s, and has gotten more comfortable in the lower register. That’s kept his voice from getting worse over the past twenty years. (Then again, it couldn’t get much worse anyway.)
Here’s something else to consider—the albums in the “trilogy” of Time Out Of Mind, “Love And Theft” and Modern Times were all released over a nine-year period. That’s roughly the same difference between Blonde On Blonde and Blood On The Tracks, and between Desire and Infidels. Except that this time, he made each installment worth something. He’s waited until he has something to say, and records on his own terms. And that will likely be his M.O. until he goes down under the ground.
Bob Dylan Modern Times (2006)—3