Ain't talkin', just a-walkin'
My mule is sick, my horse is blind
Heart burning, still yearning
Thinkin' 'bout that gal I left behind
-- Ain't Talkin' (from Modern Times)
The occasion of a new Dylan album (first in five years) can't go unacknowledged here in Living RomCom-land. It's not because Dylan has much to do with screwball comedy -- though such classic tracks as Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat and the more recent Highlands would certainly qualify (and on screen, there is that scene of Bob's brief but deep love affair with a shelf of canned vegetables he's forced to read at gunpoint in Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid...).
It's not because (as I've already red-facedly admitted here) for a few formative years in my life I wanted to be Bob Dylan. No, it's because he's still one of the best we've got and he matters, as a force of art and culture. He's also one of the last of the diehard Romantics (more on this below), and so his latest opus speaks to the similarly afflicted.
Hearing Modern Times puts me in a sort of oddball fugue state (could be the record's intention, actually). To be Bob-istic about it, I'll just stream through some 8 random topics that my listening has engendered.
Bob is Bing?
Confounding expectations has been Dylan's stock-in-trade from early on; his assumption of various roles and poses over nearly 45 years in the limelight have truly run the gamut. But honestly, I never expected him to turn out to be my generation's Bing Crosby.
Nevertheless, roughly half the tunes on Modern Times are crooners, the kinds of old-time Texas two-steps that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Gene Autrey or Arthur Godfrey record. I've never really cottoned to this Other Side of Bob, not when he first introduced it years ago with some shmaltzy covers on Self Portrait, nor when he indulges himself in such ersatz Der Bingle swing now. But Dylan sounds sincere as blue-eyed cowboy balladeer, and these tracks are not without their rascal charm, seasoned as they are by droplets of droll wit (I'm wild about you, gal / You oughta be a fool for me goes one typical throwaway).
But Bob is not Woody.
You could see him as a sort of second Woody Guthrie, but he's not Woody Allen, though his professed love for Alicia Keys on this album may initially give one pause. Girl's a little... young for you, dude, is one PC reaction.
The spectacle of an elder statesmen bent on seducing girls roughly the age of his daughters is what's made a number of the Woodman's last spate of movies tough to sit through, but Dylan is too good-humored about his hard-on here to really outrage any but the prissiest among us. The crucial difference is a tad of self-awareness.
The heart has its reasons...
Though the matters of Modern Times are weighty -- and Dylan continues to delight fanatics everywhere by popping a few Biblical turns of phrase into the most unlikely of contexts -- what it so often boils down to is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.
Dylan the lover has long limned the extremes of passionate romance. For every prayerful, reverent tribute to womanhood (I Want You, Just Like a Woman), he's spewed the acid vitriol of the spurned male (Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine, She's Your Lover Now). Apparently such dichotomies do not shift with time. On Modern Times, he sings at one point, I've got more than a lifetime to live loving you, while at another he sings, This woman's so crazy I swear I ain't gonna touch another one for years.
Same as it ever was, indeed; just as Dylan wears the mantle of a Last Romantic in the sense of the romance poets, the bards who deal in ideals (who, as Ain't Talkin' puts it, practice a faith that's been long abandoned), he also embodies an Old World male's vision of the eternal tug and pull between the sexes. Ann Powers in her perceptive L.A. Times review notes:
Dylan's view of women is as traditional as his love of analog recording and old-timey songs. This self-proclaimed family man, who felt so little need to distinguish the identities of his ex-wives in his autobiography that he merged them, does seem a bit miffed that young women in particular exert so much pull over him. Yet even if the furious longing he expresses throughout "Modern Times" has one root in a pre-feminist's discontent with modern gender roles, it's also heavier than that. The silly, wretched pounding of Dylan's heart, like the ragged flower Chaplin's Tramp offers his tattered sweetheart, presents romance as the strategy against life's devastating assaults. This heroism, Dylan ruefully intimates, is bound to fail.
Little can I add, except to say that there remains something elemental in Dylan's take on matters of the heart that move we faithful in ways that defy intellectual analysis.
Why, yes, that is a good band, Bob.
Faced with Dylan's claim that he's playing with the best band he's ever had caused interviewer Jonathan Lethem to parenthetically hem and haw, in the Rolling Stone interview now on the stands, and who can blame him (two words: The Band)? Nonetheless, if you've seen the guys live, you'll allow the claim is justified.
On this album they shine. They also stumble through the changes and drop their share of clams, as have pretty much all the various groups of musicians faced with Dylan's legendary recording impatience (he's famous for making his players learn the changes on the run with tape rolling in his quest for capturing a given song "in the moment"). But they are clearly in the groove; the album's laidback-but-lively feel is its major strength. Drummer George G. Receli is indeed the best drummer Dylan's had since the respective heydays of Kenny Buttrey, Howie Wyeth and Levon Helm, and the swinging, rockbed rhythm he lays down with bassist Tony Garnier on such flat-out freight train blues as The Levee's Gonna Break is sheer pleasure.
A band this tight'n'loose enables Dylan to really stretch out as a vocalist. Some of the peak delights on the record arise from his crafty phrasing. Listen to the way he steps nimbly in, around and over the beat when singing "You fill me up with... noth!-in' but!... self-doubt" in the second verse of Someday Baby and see if that don't make you smile.
Dylan to musical world: You suck.
One could only read this Reuters dispatch culled from the Stone interview and laugh, given the bald curmudgeonly-crank nature of the pronouncements.
"I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really," the 65-year-old rocker said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine... "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them," he added... Noting the music industry's complaints that illegal downloading means people are getting their music for free, he said, "Well, why not? It ain't worth nothing anyway."
My first knee-jerk response was that yes, he has a point, and then the other knee jerked, as I considered all the quite excellent music produced over the past decade. But I also recently sat through a tirade by a young Italian feature sound engineer who claims that MP3s are garbage, and I do still listen to my old analog LPs and find them warmer and more resonant than their CD counterparts. So is this the irrelevant rant of a egoistic old codger, or...?
Walking the talk, Dylan-as-producer does himself right; there's a sense in Modern Times of hearing a man and his band getting the hang of a bunch of new songs... period (the opening rocker Thunder on the Mountain has the comfy stripped-down sound of a Chuck Berry single from the '60s). It's an honest, straightforward recording, with nary one recording bell or whistle, which is one of the reasons it somehow sounds so old/new fresh to the 2006 ear.
Forever young = Forever out of time.
Many of Dylan's peers have adapted disparate strategies to survive in an increasingly bewildering and unkind-to-the-aged marketplace; Paul Simon smartly and quite successfully bonded with Brian Eno, of all unlikelies, on his most recent disc; Neil Young has taken to putting out... Neil Young records, with remarkable consistency (his latest, despite the seemingly brash politics, sounds much like anything he's ever recorded), honoring the gambit of why fix it if it ain't broke?
Dylan's strategy, intuitive or designed, is finally to be true to his school -- which means that he's long abandoned the few attempts he made to move to the drumbeat of his times (e.g. Empire Burlesque) and is now content to present who he is: an older man of older times, carrying a torch of tradition even while ever-blazing his own idiosyncratic trail. From the Stone interview:
Dylan seems to feel he dwells in a body haunted like a house by his bardlike musical precursors. "Those songs are just in my genes, and I couldn't stop them comin' out. In a reincarnation way, maybe. The songs have got some kind of pedigree to them."
Dylan's stubborn resistance to going with the flow and playing the game has always been one of his most endearing traits, no more so than in the ongoing issue of product v. process. As he famously wrote, "To live outside the law, you must be honest," and he's honored this principle consistently by refusing to think in terms of What They Want and When They Want It. Modern Times is merely more of the same. Although...
Masterpiece? Why critics are idiots.
They won't retire the word "genius," no matter how bereft of genuine meaning it's become, from critical abuse (e.g. if Christine Aguilera is a genius...), and they won't, dagnabbit, give up on "masterpiece," no matter that such pieces are produced by masters, evidently, on a weekly basis these days ("masterwork" has been applied to Modern Times in three reviews I've read). Critics, caught in the endless game of having to top their own hyperbole, time after time, can't really be trusted, as a rule, to put things in their proper hierarchical order.
Let's get it in perspective: Blonde on Blonde is a masterpiece. Meanwhile, I think there's only one song on this new album that has the spectral, awesome depths of Time Out of Mind's transcendent, one-foot-in-the-grave hymn, Not Dark Yet. I'll wager that what'll rightfully rank with Bob's best is the eerie, majestically mournful Ain't Talkin', which has the magic of real mystery lurking in its dark corners.
Let us now praise famous men.
But inevitably one leavens the disappointments with gratitude for a job still being so well done. Finally, it's the process, the whole of the work and the life that resonates between the tracks. How many have sustained such a career? While Modern Times in sum may not be as spooky- powerful as Time Out of Mind or contain a slam-dunk classic like the Wonder Boys soundtrack Oscar-winner Things Have Changed, it's got more substance and stature than most stuff you hear these days.
The appeal of the new album ultimately lies in its authenticity, a quality that seems harder and harder to come by in these modern times. Hear it and you hear a link between us and all that's come before us. And even as I resist its cornier-sounding moments, I keep coming back to it, not out of obligation, but out of love, and I can already hear how it will endure.