By Mark Guarino
The modern in Bob Dylan’s “Modern Times” (Columbia) is not the music, not the instrumentation, and certainly not the scratchy throat from up come the words. The contemporary idea that Dylan, 65, brings to his audience after 44 years is like the ancient country, bluegrass and blues tunes he so admires: In every sad song there’s whimsy, in every happy song, dread.
The new album, in stores this week, is filled with both. Starting in 1997, when he put his career back on track with the Grammy-winning “Time Out of Mind” (Columbia), Dylan made a point to dress and play music from a blurry American past. His dusty western suits, Vincent Price mustache, cornball jokes and vaudevillian presentation are tailored to the jumble of his preferred musical styles — swing blues, old-timey jazz, living room waltzes and juke joint boogie — sounding most at home pumping out of a rusty Victrola’s horn.
But unlike your average roots music enthusiast, Dylan is not wound on retread. It’s no coincidence that this album shares a title with the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film that mocks industrial progress and corporate kowtowing. “Modern Times” the album is from the perspective of the Little Tramp, a sad clown assailed by modern society who by the end trumps his lot in life with laughter and love.
Romance and humor indeed live large in these songs, all Dylan word scrambles filled with his liveliest rhymes: playful sexual jibes (“I got the porkchop/she got the pie”), female trouble (“I’m flat-out spent, this woman been drivin’ me to tears/this woman so crazy I swear I’m not gonna touch another one for years”) or ruminations on — this is true — Alicia Keys (“I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be/I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee”). Hand in hand with the idiot humor is doe-eyed romance, a combination that makes this album at first blush his most accessible and freewheeling in years.
The ten songs are strict meat-and-potato affairs using his current touring band that is engaged at full tilt. They sound like they’re having nothing but fun pile driving through the mishmash of styles — Chicago blues in particular. In this way, “Modern Times” is a direct bookend to 2001’s “Love and Theft,” complicated songs that sound easily tossed off.
But despite the mad energy, there is considerable anxiety. Dylan jokes and flatters but his lyrics don’t stop watching the clock. “So many good things in life/that I overlook,” he croaks. A nine-minute album closer finds the devil — or is it Jesus? — prowling the earth bent on destruction and on another, he warns the people below (in New Orleans?) that the levees are “gonna strip you of all they can take.”
The one song here certain to join his canon from the earliest day sis “Nettie Moore.” The song stops and starts, a single stomping beat hits from behind. Dylan sings to a sweetheart long dead but that doesn’t stop the romance: “Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide/I’d walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side.”