Let's be frank: after Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, anyone looking for young folks' music from Bob Dylan simply hasn't been paying attention. So, don't let the title of this first new studio album in five years - Modern Times - fool you into expecting some cutting-edge techno-rock extravaganza, or spunky MySpace diatribes. That's a vintage yellow cab speeding across the cover, and it's vintage music inside.
Although, the cycles of musical fashion working as they do, there's probably plenty here to interest fans of nu-folk and alt.country. Certainly, anyone who ever bought a Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Lambchop or Gillian Welch album would find its ruminations on time, love and life absorbing, and its gentle country and blues modes warmly agreeable.
The title plays on our associations of modernity with speed, wealth, technology, all the benefits of progress. But this is an old man's view of modern times, not some trendy young designer's, and Dylan's observations are tempered with hard-won experience, if not a little cynicism.
Like Love and Theft, it was recorded by Dylan with his current touring band, who are by now alert to his every whim, musically speaking. While there are no groundbreaking shifts of style, there's plenty of effortless, simpatico playing in the expansive, 20th-century blues modes that characterised Love and Theft.
Although it took me a few listens to be won over, it makes a fine conclusion to the trilogy begun in 1997 with Time Out of Mind - the first time in 40 years that Dylan has made three great albums in a row. Here's my track- by-track survey:
Thunder on the Mountain
The album opens with this gently rolling Western Swing boogie, built on Dylan's own piano vamp and stitched together with neat guitar fills. An early reference to Alicia Keys seems like a typical Dylan red herring, as the song offers a curiously light, allusive apprehension of disaster, with the rich scurrying to save themselves, and Bob contemplating the creation of his own militia: "Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches/ I recruit my army from the orphanages". But he's being facetious as, elsewhere, he's selfless to a fault.
Spirit on the Water
A bluesy lilt in which Bob expresses affection for a loved one in surprisingly direct terms ("life without you doesn't mean a thing to me"), using clichés with the assurance of one who can now discard youthful semantic tomfoolery. The melody is built on a descending guitar vamp, while Dylan's harmonica owes more to Larry Adler than Little Walter.
Rollin' and Tumblin'
Despite the song credit, this faithfully follows the template of Muddy Waters' 1949 classic, its jaunty manner pepped up with waspish slide-guitar fills, while Dylan adds his own twist with lines such as, "Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains".
When the Deal Goes Down
A country ballad, with Bob as an old-timer looking back with melancholy equanimity, immune to "deafening noise" and "transient joys", despite all the baggage he's accrued. But not without regrets: "I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by/ Things I never meant nor wished to say".
A blues shuffle in J J Cale style, with a guitar hook that's like a gossamer echo of John Lee Hooker's "Dimples"/"Boom Boom" riff, riding a light brushed-snare beat. The theme's blues, too, Dylan blithely anticipating release from romantic obsession until his tone suddenly hardens: "Well I don't want to brag, but I'm gonna wring your neck/ When all else fails I'll make it a matter of self-respect".
Workingman's Blues #2
Named in homage to Merle Haggard's blue-collar anthem, this wistful contemplation of the plight of the working class is the centrepiece of Modern Times, and its plainest indictment of these times. Lines such as, "The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down", and, "They say low wages are a reality/ If we want to compete abroad", are sung with a greater ease than they suggest in print, while observations such as, "Sometimes no one wants what we got/ Sometimes you can't give it away", show how Dylan can still cut to the quick of an issue. Manages to be both melancholy and somehow uplifting.
Beyond the Horizon
Similar in spirit and style to "Beyond the Blue Horizon", with pedal steel guitar and violin burnishing the gentle lilt. Yet another vision of contemplation in the autumn of one's years, despite the shadows of lines such as, "It's dark and it's dreary/ I've been pleading in vain/ I'm wounded and I'm weary/ My repentance is plain". Beautifully delivered.
Once again, Dylan seeks salvation from worldly woes through the love of a good woman. But what woes these are, when "the world of research has gone berserk", leading him back to belief in the Scriptures. "I'm going where the Southern crosses the yellow dog," he sings, "get away from all these demagogues". The starkest piece, musically, with poignant violin, guitars and tambourine riding a fatalistic bass drumbeat, like a condemned man on his way to the gallows.
The Levee's Gonna Break
A light, rolling boogie on a familiar theme, buttoned down with guitar licks. Lines such as, "Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take", evoke the profiteering post-Hurricane Katrina, but one senses that Dylan is thinking of a metaphorical levee of more universal application.
The album ends with Bob in resigned, apocalyptic mode, "Walking through the world mysterious and vague/ Heart burnin', still yearnin'/ Walking through the cities of the plague". But where once he'd have excoriated sinners, here his disappointment is borne on lovely acoustic guitar-picking.
'Modern Times' is out now on ColumbiaReuse content