Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 30 November 2015

38. Modern Times (2006)

A suitable alternative title for this record might be "Bob Dylan Rocks, But Gently".  Like its predecessor "Love And Theft", Modern Times sticks firmly to the pre-rock'n'roll era, mixing sedate tea-dances with frisky, polished blues and stately ballads, only here the sound is more restrained. Dylan retains Tony Garnier on upright bass (plus on this occasion cello), and they are joined by the latest touring band comprising Donnie Herron on steel guitar, viola, violin and mandolin, Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman on guitar, and George G. Receli on drums.  Once again the words are cherry-picked from a wide variety of sources, including Civil War poet Henry Timrod, Roman poet Ovid, and many snippets of song lyrics, but this time Bob caused some eyebrows to raise with his wholesale lifting of some of the arrangements and melodies without crediting their originators.  Whether you believe that this is simply a part of the long-standing "folk tradition", or in actual fact taking the piss a bit, hopefully shouldn't affect your enjoyment of Modern Times, for it's a very fine album indeed, continuing Dylan's late-career hot streak.

A terrific old-fashioned guitar intro launches the steady R'n'B of Thunder on the Mountain, whose Chuck Berry riff underpins a baffling set of verses, including references to his faith and a startling mention of Alicia Keys.  Six minutes later it ends with a flourish, and we're into the Western Swing of Spirit on the Water, a gentle love song that at twenty verses and nearly eight minutes unfortunately outstays its initial welcome.  This style of song was my favourite on L&T, but there they were all around the 3-4 minute mark, so never got the chance to become this tiresome.  Also the music is a little thin, sounding unfinished or perhaps under-rehearsed.  It's a lovely number though, and the final chorus,

"You think I'm over the hill,
You think I'm past my prime,
Let me see what you got,
We can have whoppin' good time"

is followed by a pretty outro featuring creamy guitar and for the first time in a couple of albums, Bob's harmonica.

On Rollin' and Tumblin' Dylan re-interprets and significantly extends a blues song best known for the version by Muddy Waters.  This is one of the tracks that by being credited solely as 'written by Bob Dylan' got the critics in such a tizz, but when he cries "I've been conjuring up all these long dead souls from from their crumblin' tombs", it strikes me that this is exactly what he's doing on Modern Times; bringing the words of the long dead into the 21st century - albeit using the music of some not-so-long-dead folks.  When the Deal Goes Down appropriates the melody of Bing Crosby's trademark song Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day), marrying it to new lyrics that could be read as devotion to either his god or perhaps a lover, a long familiar theme.  There's no ambiguity as to what 'the deal going down' is, though; clearly the end of life is still a preoccupation for this 65 year-old man, though not on the same scale as on Time Out Of Mind.

Bob further muddies the waters of copyright with Someday Baby, a re-working of the blues song Trouble No More.  Over a shuffling beat and brisk guitar the narrator threatens to kick out, even murder, the woman he hates to love, with the refrain "Someday baby, you ain't gonna worry po' me any more".

He moves from murderous to defiant yet hopelessly resigned on piano ballad Workingman's Blues #2.  There's a rather clunky first verse about the "...buyin' power of the proletariat" and America's low wage economy, that has echoes of the abysmal Union Sundown from Infidels, and it has the same demo-ish quality as Spirit on the Water where the band don't quite gel, but overall it's a classic-in-waiting with a haunting chorus:

"Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind,
Bring me my boots and shoes,
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line,
Sing a little bit of those workingman's blues".

Beyond the Horizon is another leisurely love song, this time with a darker undercurrent and set to the tune of Red Sails in the Sunset, a standard recorded by the likes of Guy Lombardo and Bing Crosby in the 1930s, and Nat King Cole and Big Jim Turner in the '50s.  It's followed by probably my favourite song on Modern Times, Nettie Moore.  This moody acoustic ballad uses the title, the first line of the chorus and a partial melody from a 19th century folk song.  Receli provides a simple, heartbeat-like thud as Bob sings of being  "...the oldest son of a crazy man, I'm in a cowboy band", and the "Blues this morning fallin' down like hail, Gonna leave a greasy trail". Muted strings join him on the achingly beautiful chorus, where the quiet yearning and depth of sadness in his voice are devastating:

"Oh I miss you, Nettie Moore,
And my happines is o'er,
Winter's gone, the river's on the rise,
I loved you then, and ever shall,
But there's no-one left here to tell,
The world has gone black before my eyes".

Flood is probably a metaphor for the End Times on The Levee's Gonna Break, the third reworked blues cover on Modern Times (When the Levee Breaks).  Having said that, it's given a very chipper musical backdrop, with some excellent work from the two guitarists accompanying Dylan's piano and croaky drawl.

Like so many albums before it, Modern Times concludes with an epic closer.  Ain't Talkin' is nearly nine minutes long and the chorus borrows its tune from the finger pickin' Highway of Regret by Dylan's beloved Stanley Brothers.  There's finger picking here too, but much more delicate, as well as mournful violin and the occasional soft 'chink' of tambourine.  It's the only song on the album where the music is as unsettling as the lyrics - no chirpy blues or sentimental supper club whimsy accompany this chilling struggle of faith.  The narrator walks endlessly through a world gone wrong, in search of an elusive peace.  I love the phrase "Walking with a toothache in my heel", and feel a bit bad for wondering where Bob might have pinched it from. Faint hope remains as "The fire gone out but the light is never dyin'", and after seventeen verses we leave him still traveling, still searching this garden of Eden that even the gardener has deserted,

"Ain't talkin', just walkin',
Up the road, around the bend,
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
In the last outback at world's end".

Modern Times continues the mood set by "Love and Theft", but has a more mature, dignified air. The band never let loose, but their sensitivity complements Dylan's now frail voice and the most stirring moments are more likely to be provided by the words and their delivery than by the music underpinning them.  Bob no longer pushes his voice; his growl is now a purr, and his phrasing is used to great emotional effect, in particular the odd tiny whimpers that are so expressive and so moving.  The new relaxed, comfortable style that began on L&T suits him in the strange way that his cowboy hat and pencil 'tache do; it doesn't for a moment diminish his ability to powerfully ruminate on sin, love, God, loss and this terrible, wonderful world in which we live.  Some criticised Modern Times for the length of the songs; to begin with I agreed, but as time went on this no longer bothered me as much, and in the case of Ain't Talkin' I'd be quite happy for it to last as long as Highlands, the 16-minute closer on TOOM.  If I were feeling mean I might describe MT as "Love And Theft Lite", as sometimes it feels more sleepy than sparkling, but from an artist of now pensionable age, and after a career of more than forty years, I'm both astounded and grateful for the fact that he's still putting out material of such high quality.

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  1. This is one of the albums you have to listen to on vinyl. Bob himself said he took care over hehe vinyl mix but left cd/download to AN Other saying "it ain't worth anything these days". The CD mix is poor in comparison

    May be vinyl snobbery but there you go. Easily my fave Bob LP of this century

    1. Yes, I've been told this elsewhere. May have to get the LP at some point. But not til my record buying ban ends :)