Bob Dylan has always been, and continues to be, a complete enigma: mysterious and brooding, romantic and charming, dirty and doubting. Dylan is a lover and a fighter, and seems to have found his groove in the blues of old with his newest endeavor, Modern Times. Being called by Columbia Records the third installation of Dylan’s ten-year “trilogy,” (preceded by 2001’s Love and Theft and 1997’s Time Out of Mind) Dylan summons music-makers and poets of old to conjure up a sound that is both ancient and culturally relevant; he mentions Alicia Keys, Hurricane Katrina and alludes to the current state of affairs. Modern Times (who’s title refers to an old Charlie Chaplin film) is a romping mix of sentimental ballads, rockabilly beats and dirty Delta blues.
“Thunder on the Mountain” starts the record out with a bang, but isn’t over the top. Dylan, with a gritty sound only he can deliver, speaks of doubt and redemption, bad luck women, love and work; he’s a world-weary wanderer and an everyman, evidenced on “Workingman’s Blues #2.” (“It’s a new path we trod / They say low wages are a reality / If we want to compete abroad”) “Rollin’ and Tumblin’”is a bluesy rattlesnake rocker (I got troubles so hard / I can’t stand this dream / some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains) and has Dylan and the boys getting down so low they’re on the ground.
“Someday Baby” has a shot-a-man-in-Reno-just-to-watch-him-die nonchalance, (“I don’t care what you do/I don’t care what you say / I don’t care where you go, or how long you stay”) and is a strong and steady freight train. The bass drum beat and sweet lyrics of “Nettie Moore” are endearing, (“I’d walk through a blazing fire, baby / if I knew you was on the other side”) and “The Levee’s Gonna Break” (no Zeppelin here, kids) is an old Memphis Minnie song that just straight up swings. The record ends with the cello-laden “Ain’t Talkin’”, a yearning county-western song. (“I practice a faith that’s been long-abandoned / Ain’t no waters on this long and lonesome road”)
Dylan recently told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Lethem that the band he’s with now is “…the best band I’ve been in,” and makes mention on “Nettie Moore” that he’s “in a cowboy band.” Produced by the man himself under surname Jack Frost, Modern Times is stripped-down to its bare bones … just a few folks playing some good music in a room. (Kinda like how records were made back in the day.)
There is not much happening in mainstream music right now can be compared to this record. It is, quite honestly, a breath of fresh air in a stale musical atmosphere; Dylan has taken old sounds and resurrected them, made them new. Thus, Modern Times couldn’t be a more perfect title for this record.