What would happen if Bob Dylan released a politically potent sequel to “The Times They Are a-Changin’” complete with blistering attacks on the War on Terror, the government’s creeping encroachment upon civil liberties, and the persistence of prejudice and discrimination?
Would anyone care? Probably not. Just like few have noticed Neil Young’s fierce album of political protest (“Living With War”), or the continued missives from the “protest singers” of 40 years ago. Some fans say they want Dylan to speak truth to power, but one wonders if anyone would listen if he tried. And anyway, he hasn’t been in that game for decades; the young protest singer who is now a part of 20th-century iconography is at least a half-dozen Dylan personas ago.
Instead, the mask that Dylan’s been wearing in recent years is that of a wizened, mustachioed old hand, blending age-appropriate ruminations on mortality (“Time Out of Mind,” 1997) with ageless excursions into the immortality of classic musical forms, chiefly the blues, country-western and American folk (“Love and Theft,” 2001). The past few years have seen Dylan chiefly concerned with his legacy, supervising the release of a number of concert recordings and anthologies and even penning a memoir (or perhaps the first volume of several), “Chronicles: Volume One” (2004).
And now comes “Modern Times,” the sage from Hibbing, Minn.’s first album of new material in five years. It’s an ironically titled collection, since musically it feels like a throwback to an earlier time (Dylan has been griping lately about digital recording technology) and only one of the songs, “Workingman’s Blues #2,” refers in any overt way to contemporary events (in such oddly written lines as, “They say low wages are a reality/If we want to compete abroad”). On the contrary, “Modern Times” is mostly about the timeless — God, lust and death — and is Dylan’s most deeply religious album in two decades.
Much of “Modern Times” uses the elliptical, almost metaphorical language of the blues — itself timeless, and, in Dylan’s gnarled, 65-year-old voice, sometimes deeply affecting. You don’t hear blues singers talking about health problems or about environmental woes — they talk about mean women and about milk cows. For fans who relished the straight talk of “Ballad of a Thin Man” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” lyrical elusiveness (such as, “My mule is sick, my horse is blind… Thinkin’ ’bout that gal I left behind” from the album’s closing song, “Ain’t Talkin’”) can be frustrating. But look beneath the surface, and “Modern Times” is an almost exact hybrid of Dylan’s previous two albums. It’s simultaneously a musical jaunt and perhaps the darkest of Dylan’s career — even darker than the death-obsessed “Time Out of Mind.” That mule and horse are Dylan himself; the “gal” is all that he regrets. Or consider these lines from “When the Deal Goes Down,” probably the best song on “Modern Times”:
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air Tomorrow keeps turning around We live and we die, we know not why But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down
Or these from “Beyond the Horizon”:
It’s dark and it’s dreary I’ve been pleading in vain I’m wounded, I’m weary My repentance is plain
Both of these songs are slow, sad and mournful. And both feature exceptional vocal performances by Dylan, who, like other aging singers, has learned the art of subtlety in place of the lost vocal powers of his youth. Dylan’s voice was, perhaps, an acquired taste, but no one could convey righteous indignation like he could. Now, threadbare and trembling, it conveys honesty, fear and old age.
It’s interesting to contrast Dylan’s honesty in the face of aging with the perpetually (and now somewhat creepily) youthful Mick Jagger, or the newly introspective but still essentially opaque Paul McCartney. There’s no question what “horizon” Dylan is contemplating, or what deal he knows will be going down. And in light of Dylan’s age, his increasing recourse to biblical metaphors — “Spirit on the water/Darkness on the face of the deep,” he sings in one song — has the ring both of the old bluesman and a final reckoning.
And throughout, Dylan’s musical style seems suited. Seeing Dylan live in recent years — since around 1997, his shows have been sporadically brilliant — one wonders how hard an artist known for his lyrics has worked to focus on the music. Extended guitar solos, jam sessions — at times it’s difficult to know whether it’s Dylan or the Grateful Dead. Even treasured chestnuts like “Tangled Up in Blue” or “Mr. Tambourine Man” are, in most of Dylan’s recent concerts, primarily about where the band can take the jam. “Modern Times” continues this emphasis. Most of the songs are about six minutes long — long enough for the band to settle in, and the lyrics to take a back seat. The forms are traditional: The basic three chords of the blues, and some of the slow numbers, like “Spirit on the Water,” have a Glen Campbell crooner quality to them.
Yet even in these traditional forms, and often amid seemingly throwaway lyrics, there are still those Dylan-esque ironic twists and prophetic injunctions, as in these lines from “Thunder on the Mountain”:
I got the porkchops, she got the pie She ain’t no angel and neither am I Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams
That Old Testament religion (“shame!”) echoes throughout “Modern Times,” surely Dylan’s most religious album since his much-despised born-again phase in the late 1970s. It’s not surprising that God is on the mind of a 65-year-old with health problems, but it’s so subtle that one might easily miss it. Yet there’s something appealingly leavened about Dylan’s Judaism these days. It suits him — the prophetic call, the no-nonsense God of Moses. Consider “Ain’t Talkin’,” which closes the album (appropriately for a collection whose lyrics are so subtle as to be concealed; its refrain is “Ain’t talkin’/just walkin’”) with lines like these:
They say prayer has the power to heal So pray to your mother In the human heart an evil spirit can dwell I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbor and do good unto others But oh, mother, things ain’t going well
Well, it’s bright in the heavens and the wheels are flyin’ Fame and honor never seem to fade The fire gone out but the light is never dyin’ Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?
Like Johnny Cash before him, Dylan has returned to religion in his old age — not the erased Judaism of his early years, or the vague prophecy of “John Wesley Harding.” Not the political Zionism of “Infidels” or the Christian evangelism of “Slow Train Coming.” But the kind of religion that knows suffering and sin, and in which the repentant sinner is the truest saint. As Dylan sings in “Ain’t Talkin’”:
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road
Forty-five years ago, Dylan asked how many roads a man must walk down before he can be called a man. Well, he’s still walking.
Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (www.zeek.net.