The new Dylan album starts with the voice of God in the mountains and the sound of pistols in the streets. Bad things are happening, and the ladies in Washington, D.C., are scrambling to get out of town. Dylan has ladies on his mind, too — Alicia Keys, who’s forty years younger than he is yet worth chasing through the Tennessee Hills just the same, but also good women who do just what you say, and the wicked women who drain your heart and mind. War and love are in the air. It’s time to get right with the Lord, maybe go back up north and try his hand at farming. But the pitchfork is on the shelf. The hammer is on the table. And from the sound of things, the hammer is coming down.
That’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” the first song on Modern Times, Dylan’s thirty-first studio record and his third straight masterwork. Modern Times was cut in New York over the course of a little more than a month with Dylan’s road band, which had a mere 113 shows of the Never Ending Tour under its belt. The songs are almost evenly divided between blues ready-mades, old-timey two-steps and stately marches full of prophecy. The band — seasoned by night after night of responding to the spontaneous reinvention that makes Dylan’s shows the longest-running miracle in rock & roll — jumps at the master’s call, bringing rockabilly twang, Chicago street muscle, cowboy swing or le jazz hot languor. In sound and feel, Modern Times recalls the kind of music working bands — Muddy Waters‘ bluesmen or Hank Williams‘ Drifting Cowboys — would cut on the fly between gigs, a mixture of unique inventions and variations on hand-me-downs touched by the leader’s genius. Almost every song retraces the American journey from the country to the city, when folkways were giving way to modern times. The mood is America on the brink — of mechanization, of war, of domestic tranquillity, of fulfilling its promise and of selling its dreams one by one for cash on the barrelhead.
Since even before he asked for permission to forget about today until tomorrow, Dylan has said that time means nothing to him. During the past ten years, he has been making music that shows just this. There is no precedent in rock & roll for the territory Dylan is now opening with albums that stand alongside the accomplishments of his wild youth. Love and Theft, recorded when he’d turned sixty, was his toughest guitar rock since Blonde on Blonde in 1966, a combination of the mojo Muddy Waters had working at age sixty-two on Hard Again and the sweeping dystopic perspective Philip Roth brought to American Pastoral at sixty-three (with more than a touch of Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life).
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Modern Times is something different. It’s less terrifying, less funny on first listen. But it has more command, more clarity. There is none of the digital murk of Time Out of Mind, and the snakebite live sound of Love and Theft has softened. This music is relaxed; it has nothing to prove. It is music of accumulated knowledge, it knows every move, anticipates every step before you take it. Producing himself for the second time running, Dylan has captured the sound of tradition as an ever-present, a sound he’s been working on since his first album, in 1962. (One reason Modern Times is so good is that Dylan has been making it so long.) These songs stand alongside their sources and are meant to, which is why their sources are so obvious, so direct: “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ ” gives a cowboy gallop and new lyrics to Muddy Waters’ 1950 hit of the same name (with its own history dating back to at least 1929); “Someday Baby” mellow-downs Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”; “The Levee’s Gonna Break” jumps off from Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks”; “Nettie Moore” lifts a line from a nineteenth-century ballad recorded by the Sons of the Pioneers; and Chuck Berry‘s “Johnny B. Goode” motivates “Thunder on the Mountain.”
“Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air,” Dylan tells his lady on “When the Deal Goes Down.” “Tomorrow keeps turning around/We live and we die, we know not why/But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.” The forces of divine reckoning and mortal love are everywhere on Modern Times. It all piles up in “Thunder on the Mountain”: devotion, lust, the second coming, earthly troubles. The language is plain-spoken, pared down: “Feel like my soul is beginning to expand/Look into my heart and you will sort of understand/You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away/The writing’s on the wall, come read it, come see what it say.” In the dance-hall ballad “Spirit on the Water,” Dylan invokes God’s creation of the heavens and Earth to describe his sweetheart’s face. There’s divine reckoning here, too, though: “I wanna be with you in paradise, and it seems so unfair/I can’t go back to paradise no more/I killed a man back there.”
And that’s one of the idyllic songs — Modern Times has plenty of love laments that turn into apocalyptic meditations. “Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains,” Dylan sings in “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.” Then darkness falls: “The night’s filled with shadows, the years are filled with early doom/I’ve been conjuring up all these long-dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs.” Dylan speaks as a preacher, a lover and a general at the same time, as though every song he’d ever recorded were coming together into one.Modern Times is the second straight album on which Dylan has invoked the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. It is inevitable to read “The Levee’s Gonna Break” — with its “people on the road . . . carrying everything that they own” — in light of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, just as it was impossible to hear Love and Theft‘s “High Water” on September 12th, 2001, the day after its release, without thinking of the World Trade Center. But neither song is that simple. Both describe the end times Dylan has seen coming since his second album. Both suggest sex or love as an alternative. “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” though, has an odd promise of redemption Ã? the river brings not just death and destruction but baptism and rebirth. The Great Mississippi Flood, along with the Charlie Chaplin movie from which the album takes its name and the Book of Revelations, form a triangle of tragedy, comedy and prophecy in which Modern Times unfolds.
And then at the end, we are somewhere near the gates of Eden. “Ain’t Talkin’,” the album closer, has the hard-boiled moralism of a Raymond Chandler novel. The setting is the Mystic Garden. One night a man goes out walking. Someone hits him from behind. There are no rules here. The gardener is gone. And in this godless place, where the cities of the plague run with hog-eyed grease, this lone man looks to avenge his father’s death and looks to his mother for guidance: “In the human heart, an evil spirit can dwell/I’m trying to love my neighbor and do good unto others/But, oh, mother, things ain’t going well.” His eyes are filled with tears. His lips are dry. His mind is clogged with thoughts of a girl he left behind. He carries a dead man’s shield and waits for his enemies to sleep so he can slaughter them. “Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’/I’ll burn that bridge before you can cross/Heart burnin’, still yearnin’/There’ll be no mercy for you once you’ve lost.” He walks up the road, around the bend, bound for “the last outback, at the world’s end.” His music trails behind him. And then he’s out of sight.