It will come as no surprise to most Dylan fans that there’s nothing obviously modern about Modern Times. Recorded with his touring band, it takes much of its musical inspiration from the golden age that predated even his own earliest recordings. There’s plenty of good-time rock & roll; two romantic, jazzy swingers; a dash of roadhouse blues; plus a couple of haunting, electric folk songs.
But what initially comes across as an unusually easygoing and simple Bob Dylan record — and Dylan records don’t get more immediately accessible than this — in fact turns out to be no such thing. It may sound warmly nostalgic on the surface, but hidden in its grooves are some pretty complex, vitriolic, and vengeful feelings.
Modern Times is being promoted as the final installment in a trilogy that’s so far included 1997’s Time Out of Mind and 2001’s Love and Theft. After a patchy early ’90s, these two superlative records reignited Dylan’s artistic and commercial flame, while also cementing a new image as a craggy, husky-voiced old cowpoke, who in his salad days had apparently started a revolution or two. But, while sharing their down-home charms, Modern Times is even more enchantingly mysterious and whimsical than its predecessors.
With Dylan clearly jazzed again about his tantalizing word puzzles and misty allusions, the lyrics cast a dizzying spell. The opening track, a straight Chuck Berry-style rocker called ”Thunder on the Mountain,” makes oblique (and weirdly anachronistic) references to the R&B singer Alicia Keys, who makes him cry because when ”she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line.” ”Workingman’s Blues #2,” meanwhile, critiques the U.S. economy and, apart from its unusual tenderness and canny rhyming of ”new path that we trod” and ”compete abroad,” might have come from the pen of Bruce Springsteen. It’s as beautiful and stirring a song as Dylan’s ever written.
If Modern Times halted at track 9, the rockin’ ”The Levee’s Gonna Break,” it would have a rounded, redemptive feel — but it doesn’t. Final song ”Ain’t Talkin’,” an almost nine-minute semi-spoken blues, shows that Bob’s still capable of dark epiphanies. The tune coldly describes an evil spirit roaming the earth, seeking revenge. Is it Dylan? The neocons? God? The devil?
Intriguing, immediate, and quietly epic, Modern Times must rank among Dylan’s finest albums. In 1965, he quipped he was just ”a song-and-dance man.” With its wonderful lightness of touch, this shows he’s more so than ever, but still with a delicious bite.