Sony Music, 2,520 yen
The poet laureate of the baby boomer generation is back to show that he continues to age like a fine Bordeaux.
Like a good wine, as he has gotten older, Bob Dylan's bold, acidic edginess has matured to become more subtle, richer, mellower and more complex, with a more velvety feel on the palate.
It would be inaccurate to say Dylan is improving with age--you can't really improve on the delicious freshness of '60s Dylan nouveau such as The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde--but his most recent work is certainly of equal quality, if different in flavor. He may not be as prolific as he was in the mid '60s and '70s, but the level of artistry on Modern Times is as high as anything Dylan has ever done.
Modern Times is the third in a trio of new classics by the old master that began with 1997's Time Out of Mind (winner of the Grammy for album of the year) a dark, austere meditation on death and aging.
Dylan's next album, the excellent "Love and Theft" was a lighter, more amusing, selection that mixed old delta blues, politics and gentle humor into a pleasing concoction that was doomed by its Sept. 11, 2001, release date to nearly vanish off the cultural radar, although it still managed to win a Grammy for best contemporary folk album.
Modern Times shows a clear and steady progression from both of these earlier efforts, with echoes of each.
Opening with the up-tempo 12-bar roots rocker "Thunder on the Mountain," Dylan serves notice that he can still keep up, even if the top-of-the-lungs delivery of "Like a Rolling Stone" has matured into a deeper, almost menacing throaty growl.
Back at the peak of his early fame a journalist asked Dylan whether he considered himself a poet or a songwriter, and he famously replied that he considered himself a "song-and-dance man." On "Spirit on the Water" one can almost hear the scrape of leather as he does a lazy softshoe to this lighthearted and jazzy seduction blues.
Dylan retools three blues classics, writing his own lyrics for the "Someday Baby," "Rollin' and Tumblin'" and "The Levee's Gonna Break," and despite ill-informed accusations by some to the contrary, this is emphatically not plagiarism--at worst it is postmodernism, and more accurately, it is the folk process in action. Others have criticized Dylan for lifting a couple of phrases from obscure U.S. Civil War poet Henry Timrod, but he'd hardly be the first to quote without crediting the source. As Pete Seeger once said, such so-called plagiarism "is basic to all culture."
"Workingman's Blues #2" is not technically blues, but a piano-driven tune with an anthemic feel and typically ambiguous lyrics that could be read as a letter to a politician or a former lover. It is also the best vocal performance on the album--rich, warm and emotive without being over the top or sentimental.
"Nettie Moore" is a story song with minimalist backing--a bass drum heartbeat with guitar and violin accents showcasing Dylan's nuanced singing. The piece is reminiscent of Tom Waits, but smoother.
Modern Times ends with "Ain't Talkin'"--a great sinister, slithering, slow minor-key groove that harkens back to Time out of Mind. In terms of lyrics, the apocalyptic visions Dylan relates in an intimate growling whisper sound like lost verses from "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" or "Gates of Eden."
Modern Times has already reached No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard album chart, the so-called song-and-dance man's best commercial showing in over 20 years, making 2006 a very good year for Dylan.
blog extra: The Wonderdog Institute of Dylanology delivers a slap upside the head of those who don't understand the difference between classical allusion, postmodernism and downloading term papers off the internet.