October 2006

Essays

Modern times and times before that

By Robert Forster
Modern times and times before that
Bob Dylan’s ‘Modern Times’

He's 65 years old now and he ain't slowin' down. Anyone thinking deep middle age was going to break Bob Dylan's stride and his will to impose himself as imperiously as possible on his times is mistaken. He set a frightening agenda in the '60s, and while things will never again be as giddy as that, just following the man these days is a full-time job. The situation is not helped by a perpetual raft of books and other assorted product that comes from the commentators. But it's Dylan himself, proving genius never dims, who is shooting sparks.

The last five years especially have seen him advance in a variety of unexpected fields: throwing his worldview out to a million people through his weekly radio show, Theme Time Radio Hour, co-writing and starring in a film, Masked and Anonymous (2003), and writing a memoir, Chronicles: Volume One (2004), that astonished with its candour and wild poetic force. Chronicles ranks as one of Dylan's greatest triumphs, as revolutionary and evocative as his best album, the almighty Blood on the Tracks. Not bad for a man of 60-plus, doing about a hundred shows a year and still finding time to pen the odd tune.

The renaissance of Dylan as a recording artist began in 1997 with Time Out of Mind. Before that there had been nearly two decades in the wilderness. There was a scattering of incendiary shows and good songs, but only one great album, Oh Mercy (1989). Time Out of Mind brought us a new Dylan, or a new character Dylan felt conviction enough to play: the grizzled old man. Dylan has always needed a role to project his work into - Woody Guthrie acolyte, folk star, pop star, Nashville country gentleman, troubadour - and all of them elicit songs and a sense of mission from him. With his conversion to Christianity at the end of the '70s he'd run to an identity as far from his early public self as possible, but it still produced a set of forceful songs. The '80s saw him touring with Tom Petty and the Grateful Dead. No role to play there, and no great album came.

I ain't looking for anything in anyone's eyes, rasps a voice like that of an old gambler or sea captain. My sense of humanity has gone down the drain, he says later. And then, I'm just going down the road feeling bad, trying to get to heaven before they close the door. What brought Dylan to the new "old" self of Time Out of Mind one can only guess, but it gave him a voice - the bewildered survivor, wrecked and bemused, death at the door, women giving him trouble, a man in his mid-fifties ready to riff on this heavy load of new emotions. One ready to throw the Bible, the blues and anything else to hand at a world gone wrong and a career run off the tracks. It was magnificent. Here was a Dylan to luxuriate in again, fired up on despair and happy to wallow in every bad feeling he could find. He wrote a startling batch of songs, got Daniel Lanois in to produce it, and kick-started a momentum that runs to the present.


Better still is ‘Things Have Changed', a song recorded for the soundtrack to The Wonder Boys (2000) that went on to win Dylan an Oscar. Here is the whole philosophy crunched into a moment. Over four verses, this minor-key blues shuffle offers up one hilarious line after another, as Dylan stacks it with out-the-side-of-the-mouth wisdom, absurd non sequiturs and anything that comes into his head. In so much of his best work, especially in the '60s and '70s, he had the ability to top one great line with another, then often with another, a dazzling display of brilliance that left listeners and his songwriter contemporaries stunned. He's at it again here:

I hurt easy, but I just don't show it
You can hurt someone and not even know it
The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity
Going to be low down, going to fly high
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie
I'm in love with a woman who doesn't even appeal to me

The voice is dusty, close-miked; Dylan judges to the millisecond when to drop another bomb over the melody. The chorus is the payoff, an encapsulation of his post-'97 mood and a repudiation, right down to the obvious play on ‘The Times They are a-Changin'', of once-held ideals:

People are crazy and times are strange
I'm locked in tight I'm out of range
I used to care but things have changed

His next album, Love and Theft, came out on 11 September 2001. Lanois was gone as producer, replaced by Jack Frost - Dylan under a pseudonym. It's a strange record, a jumble of the brilliant, the bizarre and some treading of water, knocked into very little shape. The big surprise was a new turn in Dylan's songwriting: four jazz-chorded '30s pop songs. Their gentleness is blunted a little, however, by three of them being followed by howling blues numbers. Dylan is feisty throughout, clearly up and inspired after his last album, yet he's firing all over the place. The highlights jump out easily: the melodicism of ‘Mississippi' and ‘Sugar Baby', ‘Lonesome Day Blues', and the mountain folk of ‘High Water'. After Time Out of Mind, it was a step down. The latest album, Modern Times, is a step down again - albeit a smaller one.

Actually, this is a tighter album than Love and Theft; ten songs to that album's dozen, and the roller-coaster turns through the genres are smoother. Jack Frost is again at the wheel and may not be the best servant to these songs; it would be interesting to hear Dylan with a producer again. His recording style is severe vérité: instruments are miked up, the band is rehearsed but never slick, Dylan sings live - press "record" and off we go. Which sounds great, a legend cutting loose in his later years and keeping it real, but Dylan needs more.

The songs need more, too, especially when Dylan calls upon a set of pre-rock 'n' roll influences, as he increasingly does. Lanois understood this; those old records had atmosphere and they had arrangements. Dylan is arrangement-shy and always has been. A typical Dylan-produced song, in the studio or on stage, consists of all the musicians starting together, playing together and finishing when Dylan gives them the nod. No one sits out. No one comes in just for a chorus. It's all pretty flat, and that's fine when the songs are top-notch and we listen to Bob sing. But as soon as they slip - as they surprisingly do on much of this album - you realise that someone else is needed to push Dylan on his material and the way it might sound.


The album starts with ‘Thunder On The Mountain', and it's the weakest opening cut Dylan has put out for some time. Trouble is signalled in the second verse. A lyrical riff on soul star Alicia Keys feels lazy:

I was thinkin' about Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even through Tennessee

The tune is a twelve-bar chug. None of the three other blues songs on the album is particularly inspired, either. The blues is a cornerstone of Dylan's work, but he always needs an angle on it - some outrage, a big dose of humour - and when he doesn't have that he's talented enough to stay on cruise-control, using the form to meditate on and jab for meaning. The best here is ‘Someday Baby', which distinguishes itself by being light and breezy. The others are too long, and one of them, ‘Rollin' And Tumblin'', is the blues standard of the same name, but with new lyrics.

The album really starts on track six, ‘Workingman's Blues #2', which isn't a blues but rather a pretty piano-led melody, redolent of ‘Forever Young', with Dylan stepping up and wheezing out, There's an even haze settling over the town / Starlight at the edge of the creek. It's a song with a strong sentimental edge, Dylan gaining confidence verse by verse, and he reaches the midpoint with:

Now they worry and they hurry and they fuss and they fret
They waste your night and days
Them I will forget
You I will remember always

One has to bow to this, and know that it's a particular pocket of the field that belongs to him. Maybe the paucity of the songs before it accentuates its worth, but this is a big song all the way.

There are two others. ‘Nettie Moore' and ‘Ain't Talkin'' are reflections on or readjustments of songs that have gone before. In the little that Dylan has said about songwriting, he has made the point that originality can derive from just one change or twist to an existing song. Both these tracks have more than one twist. Both are relatively simple musical frames exploded by Dylan's lyrical finesse and singing, which is wired to the second. ‘Ain't Talkin'' is clearer, possessing the more concrete setting of the two:

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vines
I was passing by yon cool and crystal fountains
When someone hit me from behind

It's a monster tale of revenge, misfortune, death, honour and gardening. Nothing you can put your finger on, of course; yet for atmosphere and grip, you just have to shake your head at the wonder of it all.


Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft and Modern Times are seen by Dylan's record company and some critics as a trilogy, a term one can easily imagine eliciting a smirk and an eye-roll from Dylan. He has always been a grabber and swallower of influences, leading to treacherous turns between albums. But these last three recordings do have a unity to them, and it comes from the tightness of vision and the sense that Dylan is trying. His singing is always committed, not arch or parodic as it was in the '80s and often is when he's playing live. His songwriting is back, too - scattered and too reliant on roots, certainly, but he's written 15 really good songs over the last ten years. They bear comparison with the best of his '60s work, and more importantly they offer a new voice: cracked, lovelorn, pessimistic, gallows-humoured, still towering over his generation.

Old age suits him. It suits him the way being young did. It's a natural fit, for both are the traditional places where wisdom can flower: the fired minds of the young and the dusty, wily utterances of the old. It's all the time in between that's the trouble. Dylan, though, survived all the crashes and the madness of his years, and survived well enough to leave himself fully stocked for a fruitful and significant late period. Time Out of Mind remains the masterpiece; ‘Chronicles: Volume Two', whenever that comes out, may be the next great thing he does. But he's putting three or four fantastic songs on each album, and smiling as the band runs through the ancient changes of the songs of his youth.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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