Tangled Up in Blues
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Besides a reference to Alicia Keys, there’s nothing modern about Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times” (Sony). On his first new album in five years, which will be released next week, the artist who once gave voice to the changing times has stepped out of the flow of time altogether.
The blues are his means of escaping the present. He borrows willy nilly from them — a line here, a scene there. “I’m going where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dawg / to escape these demagogues,” he sings on “Nettie Moore,” itself an adaptation of an old folk song. The first line is a reference to the original blues song collected by W.C. Handy; the second could refer to any number of modern figures.
Mr. Dylan has always been a conjurer of old souls. Even in his youth, he could tap the spirits of early American music. The difference now is he seems to have joined them on the other side. The songs on “Modern Times” live out all the old blues storylines simultaneously. He’s “the oldest son of a crazy man.” He’s “in a cowboy band.” He’s “got a pile of sins to pay for,” and he “ain’t got time to hide.” Though his “mule is sick” and his “horse is blind,” he’ll “harvest what the earth brings forth.” If things break right, he’s “gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up North.”
Musically, the album is less satisfying than its predecessors, “Time Out of Mind” (1997) and “Love and Theft” (2001), which together constitute his latest return to form. The sound here is more polite. The brushed drums, picked guitar, and swooning strings tend toward genteel jazz and Sunday brunch blues. There’s nothing as disgusted as “Love Sick,” as haunted as “Not Dark Yet,” as world weary as “Mississippi,” nor as playful as “Po’ Boy.”
But the lyrics manage to improve on his recent work — they are simultaneously personal and elusive. In this, they mirror Mr. Dylan’s recent career. After years of assiduously avoiding the spotlight, he has lately offered himself up for public scrutiny. With “Chronicles, Vol. 1” and “No Direction Home,” he has crafted a mythopoetic version of his own life story. Then there’s his weekly XM radio program, “Theme Time Radio Hour,” during which he spins records while carrying on about mothers, coffee, weather, and baseball like a cracked, music-obsessed Dr. Seuss. The joke is on us: After all this, Mr. Dylan remains as inscrutable as ever.
The folksy talk and theme-infatuation of his radio show spill over onto the album. Mr. Dylan relishes the colorful, cranky language of food — “I got the pork chops / she got the pie”; “eatin’ hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town” — and weather, which always seems to be taking a turn for the worse. (There’s a “mean old twister bearin’ down on me”; “blues is fallin’ down like hail”; and “if it keep on raining the levee’s gonna flood.”)
Mr. Dylan is of two minds about his twilight years. The new album alternates between meditations on the great beyond and songs about earthly delights, especially women “so crazy” he swears he “ain’t gonna touch another one for years.” But this front porch sage is a backdoor fool. No matter how many times women wrong him, Mr. Dylan keeps crawling back. “Put some sugar in my bowl,” he pleads with one wayward lover on the sprightly “Spirit on the Water.”
His relationship with faith is no different — he’s spurned but he can’t stay away. Time and multiple conversion experiences have taught him how little he knows, and the album is infused with a confident doubt. “We live and we die, we know not why,” he sings on “When the Deal Goes Down,” a country waltz so thick with pathos that it could be an early Tom Waits song. Still, he decides there’s “always a reason someone’s life has been spared.” At this late hour, he’s “beginning to believe what the scriptures say.”
The only reasonable response to a world so “mysterious and vague,” he seems to decide, is to embrace its absurdity. “Modern Times” contains some of Mr. Dylan’s strangest lyrics since “Ballad of a Thin Man.” “I’m gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches / gonna raise my army from the old religions / I been to St. Hermit, said my religious vows / I suck the milk out of a thousand cows,” he sings on the meandering opening track “Thunder on the Road.”
But the dreamscape turns nightmarish on the excellent Southern gothic closing track “Ain’t Talking.” A latticework of chiming guitar and ominous strings evoke the setting: a “mystic garden,” with “wounded flowers dangling from a wounded vine.” It serves as a kind of purgatory. Mr. Dylan is stalked by unseen enemies and haunted by abandoned loves as he strolls the grounds “with a toothache in my heel.”
Peeling off layers of borrowed experience and abstract imagery, a personal core is exposed. “I’m not playing, I’m not pretending,” Mr. Dylan sings, sounding for once as if he’s speaking as himself, “I’m not nursing any superfluous fears.” Whatever era and language he chooses, the songs are ultimately about him.
August 29 at the New Britain Stadium in New Britain, Conn.