Monday, December 13, 2010

Bob Dylan 47: Modern Times

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


  1. "Modern Times", a 3? Mmh, I don't know. Worse than "Infidels" or "New Morning"? I agree it's not as great as "Love and Theft" (for me, "Time Out Of Mind" is a bit overrated, maybe because its "the-dead-came-out-of-the-grave" status), but 3,5 or even 4 would seem more fair to me. A matter of taste, of course.

    All in all, a good and pointed review, as always, even if you dismiss 'Ain't talkin' with your usual "one-note" objection (what's wrong with one-note songs?, there are some great ones, and this one is among them I.M.O.) and don't even mention 'Workingman's blues # 2', which I consider almost a masterpiece, if only too long and lacking a good harmonica bridge.

    But then again, you're doing a wonderful work; I'm anxious to read the upcoming (I hope so) Tom Waits entries, since I'm such a big fan.

    Salutes from Spain,

  2. "Apparently having gotten away with plagiarizing from obscure Japanese novels..."

    These accusations of plagiarizing are getting a little old. By now I would think people understand the tradition dylan comes from- and I don't even mean the Folk and Blues traditions.

    There is a discipline being practiced called "Literary Allusion." And it ain't so easy to do.

  3. PS

    Here are a couple of points about literary allusion

    "An allusion is a figure of speech that makes a reference to, or representation of, a place, event, literary work, myth, or work of art, either directly or by implication. M. H. Abrams defined allusion as "a brief reference, explicit or indirect, to a person, place or event, or to another literary work or passage".[1] It is left to the reader or hearer to make the connection (Fowler); where the connection is detailed in depth by the author, it is preferable to call it "a reference"."

    "In discussing the richly allusive poetry of Virgil's Georgics, R. F. Thomas[7] distinguished six categories of allusive reference, which are applicable to a wider cultural sphere. These types are

    1. Casual Reference, "the use of language which recalls a specific antecedent, but only in a general sense" that is relatively unimportant to the new context;
    2. Single Reference, in which the hearer or reader is intended to "recall the context of the model and apply that context to the new situation"; such a specific single reference in Virgil, according to Thomas, is a means of "making connections or conveying ideas on a level of intense subtlety";
    3. Self-Reference, where the locus is in the poet's own work;
    4. Corrective Allusion, where the imitation is clearly in opposition to the original source's intentions;
    5. Apparent Reference ""which seems clearly to recall a specific model but which on closer inspection frustrates that intention" and
    6. Multiple Reference or Conflation, which refers in various ways simultaneously to several sources, fusing and transforming the cultural traditions.

    Allusion differs from the similar term intertextuality in that it is an intentional effort on the author's part. The success of an allusion depends in part on at least some of its audience "getting" it.

    Just as he has been discovered to be using this discipline in his musical work many readers of Chronicles (some academics, some just very well read) have remarked on the allusions in the text.

    I guess that is why there are academic courses and thesis papers etc popping up more and more about Dylan and his work.

    When you think about it it really is amazing. This stuff usually doesn't make it to academia until well after the subjects life on earth is over.

    I don't know if you can do any html on comments- I guess we'll see.

    Here is a link to more of the article:

  4. My mention of "plagiarizing from Japanese novels" was an attempt to be flippant, which doesn't always translate here.

    Anyway, thanks for all the food for thought, ohmercy. I'll be checking out your blogs as well!

  5. There's literary allusion, and then there's wholesale musical transliteration. I suspect Johnny & Jack, Gene Austin and others Dylan has "borrowed" from in the 21st Century would have something slightly less friendly to say about his appropriations than oh mercy did up top. It's one thing to sport one's influences proudly on one's sleeve; it's quite another to copy a 50 year-old song note-for-note and slap your own name all over it.