A major voice, and arguably the most distinctive of all American artists in the post-Elvis Presley era, Bob Dylan’s work has inspired, delighted, perplexed and divided opinion over six decades of recording and touring. Along the way his notable work includes The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, the masterpiece double-album Blonde on Blonde, the seminal early 70s album Blood On The Tracks and 1997’s Time Out Of Mind.
A chronicler of civil rights and anti-war protest folk in the early 60s, Dylan assumed the mantle of spokesman for his generation, an accolade he only briefly embraced, preferring to widen his horizons as he moved into electric folk, country music and traditional American music in its broadest sense, be that in the spirit of Hank Williams or Frank Sinatra. Though he doesn’t profess to own the Great American Songbook, Dylan enriches the form.
Often at his best when seemingly being most capricious, this is a man who swum against the tide in the mid-60s when he insisted on his right to work with musicians such as Mike Bloomfield, The Band and the Nashville A-team, as well as side trips with his old friends Grateful Dead, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, and George Harrison in The Traveling Wilburys. His Never Ending Tour means that while he’s seldom available to the media, he is often within touching distance of his fans. Among his many accolades are 12 Grammy Awards, one Academy Award and the 2016 Nobel Prize In Literature. Though he refused to accept in person, Dylan sent a gracious speech stating, “I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavours.” Amen to that.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, on 24 May 1941, in Duluth, Minnesota, the young Bob was a rock’n’roll fanatic who moved into folk in order to mine deeper, darker moods. After becoming a hit on the coffee house circuit in Minneapolis, he moved to New York City in 1961 and made contact with his idol and early muse Woody Guthrie. Tapping into a scene popularised by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Dylan played the clubs in Greenwich Village and shared digs and stages with Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Karen Dalton, Odetta and the Irish musicians The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.
Signed to Columbia by John Hammond, who produced his self-titled debut album in 1962, Dylan’s voice was generally heard for the first time on a collection of folk standards with the inclusion of two originals, ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song To Woody’. That promising start was eclipsed completely by The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which was produced by Hammond and Tom Wilson in New York, and released in May 1963. The young talent was beyond precocious: ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, ‘Girl From The North Country’, ‘Masters Of War’, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ announced the arrival of a major star. Such was his popularity, Dylan could have stood for President.
The starker The Times They Are A-Changin’ hinted that he wasn’t going to be pigeonholed for long by the folk purists and Another Side Of Bob Dylan upped his game with a set of songs that reached The Byrds in Los Angeles, who covered ‘All I Really Want To Do’ and used it as the template for their own newly minted jingle-jangle folk-rock.
Feeling empowered by his status, Dylan dropped Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, distanced himself from sheer protest and began his electric odyssey. He was credited with influencing The Beatles, and songs such as ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, ‘Maggie’s Farm’, ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and the epic ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ made an amazing difference to the development of popular music on both sides of the Atlantic. The same went for Highway 61 Revisited, whose opening cut, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and closing magnum opus, ‘Desolation Row’, altered the boundaries of rock forever, often thanks to a cast including Al Kooper on organ and piano, Bloomfield and country master Charlie McCoy on guitar, plus a tough electric rhythm section, all expertly manhandled by Dylan’s new producer, Bob Johnston.
A move to Nashville – with forays back to New York – gave us Blonde On Blonde, whose 14 songs defined the summer of ’66 without paying any lip service to swinging LSD scenes or hippified mantras. Instead, there was a unique blend of everything he could do, from writing hits such as ‘Rainy Day Women #12 and 35’ and ‘I Want You’ to penning more testing work such as the emotionally coruscating ‘Visions Of Johanna’ and the visceral ‘“Just Like A Woman’.
Dylan’s reputation as the bard of beat grew exponentially thereafter when he returned to rootsier fare on John Wesley Harding, a country masterpiece on which ‘All Along The Watchtower’ slipped through like a neutron bomb while ballads and ditties in the old troubadour fashion drew fulsome praise and helped remove the prejudice to country music.
A new-sound crooning Bob popped up on Nashville Skyline: he duetted with Johnny Cash on a revisit to ‘Girl From The North Country’ and opened his heart on the bittersweet ‘I Threw It All Away’. Evidently acutely aware of his own image, Self Portrait (1970) could be construed as a deliberate attempt to loosen the shackles of superstardom with four sides of covers and originals designed to appear like a bootleg recording (this being the heyday of illicit releases). Much of it sallied over the heads of critics, but takes on Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Early Morning Rain’, Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’ and the Bryant Brothers’ ‘Take A Message To Mary’ had serious intent even if the overall mood was deliberately playful.
The excellent New Morning, containing ‘If Not For You’ (which George Harrison covered on All Things Must Pass, though Olivia Newton-John made it a hit single in 1971), prefaced a new chapter. It was followed, three years later, by the soundtrack album Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, which included the relaxed soon-to-be-standard, ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’.
Dylan then reunited with his Canadian chums The Band for the studio outing Planet Waves and its attendant live album, Before The Flood. Touring with the group that had backed him on his incendiary 1966 live shows rejuvenated Dylan’s live appeal, drew critics back on board and paved the way for 1975’s Blood On The Tracks, his most poetic if not entirely autobiographical work; despite some oddly lukewarm responses at the time, it has become many people’s go-to Bob Dylan album. The writing is so deft and the imagery so lucid that songs such as ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, ‘Simple Twist Of Fate’ and ‘Lily, Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts’ stand beyond the remit of lesser mortals. Producing the record himself, Dylan added mandolin and organ to his repertoire, and also turned in some of the most unforgettable vocals of his career. Never ceasing to please and amaze, the album now consistently wins five-star plaudits.
The worked-over official release of The Basement Tapes (cherry-picking from a heavily bootlegged set of sessions) captured a narrative strain and a roots-rock sensibility. Good as it was, however, the arrival of Desire, which featured stand-out cuts ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Joey’, plus vocal assists from Emmylou Harris and Ronee Blakley, found the artist back in love with the road, setting out across the States on the Rolling Thunder Revue, and capturing a later show on the Hard Rain album.
1978’s Street-Legal and the following year’s Slow Train Coming found Dylan at a crossroads, depicting a man torn between secular and religious motifs. Born again in 1980, Saved moved into gospel terrain and Old Testament fire-and-brimstone before 1981’s Shot Of Love, which included the superlative ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ and remains one of Dylan’s personal favourites.
Infidels (1983) was less favourably received, but by now Dylan was used to being praised and pilloried by rote, so that when he made Empire Burlesque, which featured various Heartbreakers, reggae stalwarts and rock drum legend Jim Keltner, and was mixed by pioneering hip-hop producer Arthur Baker, one senses he could care less. But the consensus turned back in his favour once the career-spanning box set Biograph reminded us all why we’d loved Dylan in the first place. 1986’s Knocked Out Loaded passed muster with Petty in the mix, but Down In The Groove and Dylan & The Dead were less essential.
Oh Mercy and Under the Red Sky tipped the session player balance without thrilling unduly. However, The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991 got the archivists frothing: there would be more in this vein, but not before 1992’s Good As I Been To You and the following year’s World Gone Wrong revisited the folk originals Dylan had cut his teeth on. 1993 also saw the live 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, which allowed him to enjoy the limelight on stage with pals Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton, Lou Reed, George Harrison and Neil Young (who dubbed the event “Bobfest”)
If he’d struggled to retain his voice throughout the changing times of the 80s, Dylan quashed doubts with 1997’s Time Out of Mind, on which songs such as ‘Cold Irons Bound’ and ‘Standing In The Doorway’ reminded us of an immense presence. Several archival compilations and box sets in The Bootleg Series followed before “Love And Theft” (produced by Jack “Bob Dylan” Frost) broke the ice and introduced his new touring band, including Larry Campbell, Charlie Sexton, Tony Garnier and David Kemper.
Recorded as he approached 65, Dylan was back in the main news again with 2006’s Modern Times. Closer, ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ was a revelation in terms of spiritual blues-noir. Folks will worry on behalf of a much-loved artiste, but Dylan was in form and ready to hit the studio again for 2009’s Together Through Life, on which he collaborated with Jerry Garcia’s old sparring partner Robert Hunter.
After a quick detour into seasonal classics on Christmas In The Heart, Dylan’s magical allure was undimmed on 2012’s Tempest (which included the John Lennon tribute ‘Roll On John’) and emerged brightly again on 2015’s Shadows In The Night, a collection of songs Sinatra had mastered. As Dylan saw it: “I don’t see myself as covering these songs in any way. They’ve been covered enough. Buried, as a matter a fact. What my band and me are basically doing is uncovering them. Lifting them out of the grave and bringing them into the light of day.”
Hot on its heels was the similarly focused Fallen Angels, performed in the sentimental mood of the 20th-century American score and libretto chiefs the likes of Jimmy Van Heusen and Harold Arlen. Vastly influenced by his old friend Willie Nelson’s Stardust epic, Dylan wraps up some loose ends as if to say, “I’ve given you many of my best shots, and this is what I love to listen to.”
The revelations keep coming. On 2017’s Triplicate, Dylan casts his net even wider for a triple-disc, 30-song album that takes in little works of art from a variety of American songwriters. Don’t try to guess what comes next. Bob Dylan’s next dream could be a nightmare, may be a rousing epiphany. He’s one of rock’s stalwarts, but he remains forever young.
Bob Dylan's first album is a lot like the debut albums by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones -- a sterling effort, outclassing most, if not all, of what came before it in the genre, but similarly eclipsed by the artist's own subsequent efforts. The difference was that not very many people heard Bob Dylan on its original release (originals on the early-'60s Columbia label are choice collectibles) because it was recorded with a much smaller audience and musical arena in mind. At the time of Bob Dylan's release, the folk revival was rolling, and interpretation was considered more important than original composition by most of that audience. A significant portion of the record is possessed by the style and spirit of Woody Guthrie, whose influence as a singer and guitarist hovers over "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Pretty Peggy-O," as well as the two originals here, the savagely witty "Talkin' New York" and the poignant "Song to Woody"; and it's also hard to believe that he wasn't aware of Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff when he cut "Freight Train Blues." But on other songs, one can also hear the influences of Bukka White, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, and Furry Lewis, in the playing and singing, and this is where Dylan departed significantly from most of his contemporaries. Other white folksingers of the era, including his older contemporaries Eric Von Schmidt and Dave Van Ronk, had incorporated blues in their work, but Dylan's presentation was more in your face, resembling in some respects (albeit in a more self-conscious way) the work of John Hammond, Jr., the son of the man who signed Dylan to Columbia Records and produced this album, who was just starting out in his own career at the time this record was made. There's a punk-like aggressiveness to the singing and playing here. His raspy-voiced delivery and guitar style were modeled largely on Guthrie's classic '40s and early-'50s recordings, but the assertiveness of the bluesmen he admires also comes out, making this one of the most powerful records to come out of the folk revival of which it was a part. Within a year of its release, Dylan, initially in tandem with young folk/protest singers like Peter, Paul & Mary and Phil Ochs, would alter the boundaries of that revival beyond recognition, but this album marked the pinnacle of that earlier phase, before it was overshadowed by this artist's more ambitious subsequent work. In that regard, the two original songs here serve as the bridge between Dylan's stylistic roots, as delineated on this album, and the more powerful and daringly original work that followed. One myth surrounding this album should also be dispelled here -- his version of "House of the Rising Sun" here is worthwhile, but the version that was the inspiration for the Animals' recording was the one by Josh White. Words: Bruce Eder
If The Times They Are a-Changin' isn't a marked step forward from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, even if it is his first collection of all originals, it's nevertheless a fine collection all the same. It isn't as rich as Freewheelin', and Dylan has tempered his sense of humor considerably, choosing to concentrate on social protests in the style of "Blowin' in the Wind." With the title track, he wrote an anthem that nearly equaled that song, and "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game" are nearly as good, while "Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" are remarkably skilled re-castings of contemporary tales of injustice. His absurdity is missed, but he makes up for it with the wonderful "One Too Many Mornings" and "Boots of Spanish Leather," two lovely classics. If there are a couple of songs that don't achieve the level of the aforementioned songs, that speaks more to the quality of those songs than the weakness of the remainder of the record. And that's also true of the album itself -- yes, it pales next to its predecessor, but it's terrific by any other standard. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The other side of Bob Dylan referred to in the title is presumably his romantic, absurdist, and whimsical one -- anything that wasn't featured on the staunchly folky, protest-heavy Times They Are a-Changin', really. Because of this, Another Side of Bob Dylan is a more varied record and it's more successful, too, since it captures Dylan expanding his music, turning in imaginative, poetic performances on love songs and protest tunes alike. This has an equal number of classics to its predecessor, actually, with "All I Really Want to Do," "Chimes of Freedom," "My Back Pages," "I Don't' Believe You," and "It Ain't Me Babe" standing among his standards, but the key to the record's success is the album tracks, which are graceful, poetic, and layered. Both the lyrics and music have gotten deeper and Dylan's trying more things -- this, in its construction and attitude, is hardly strictly folk, as it encompasses far more than that. The result is one of his very best records, a lovely intimate affair. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
With Another Side of Bob Dylan, Dylan had begun pushing past folk, and with Bringing It All Back Home, he exploded the boundaries, producing an album of boundless imagination and skill. And it's not just that he went electric, either, rocking hard on "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Maggie's Farm," and "Outlaw Blues"; it's that he's exploding with imagination throughout the record. After all, the music on its second side -- the nominal folk songs -- derive from the same vantage point as the rockers, leaving traditional folk concerns behind and delving deep into the personal. And this isn't just introspection, either, since the surreal paranoia on "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" and the whimsical poetry of "Mr. Tambourine Man" are individual, yet not personal. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, really, as he writes uncommonly beautiful love songs ("She Belongs to Me," "Love Minus Zero/No Limit") that sit alongside uncommonly funny fantasias ("On the Road Again," "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream"). This is the point where Dylan eclipses any conventional sense of folk and rewrites the rules of rock, making it safe for personal expression and poetry, not only making words mean as much as the music, but making the music an extension of the words. A truly remarkable album. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Taking the first, electric side of Bringing It All Back Home to its logical conclusion, Bob Dylan hired a full rock & roll band, featuring guitarist Michael Bloomfield, for Highway 61 Revisited. Opening with the epic "Like a Rolling Stone," Highway 61 Revisited careens through nine songs that range from reflective folk-rock ("Desolation Row") and blues ("It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry") to flat-out garage rock ("Tombstone Blues," "From a Buick 6," "Highway 61 Revisited"). Dylan had not only changed his sound, but his persona, trading the folk troubadour for a streetwise, cynical hipster. Throughout the album, he embraces druggy, surreal imagery, which can either have a sense of menace or beauty, and the music reflects that, jumping between soothing melodies to hard, bluesy rock. And that is the most revolutionary thing about Highway 61 Revisited -- it proved that rock & roll needn't be collegiate and tame in order to be literate, poetic, and complex. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
If Highway 61 Revisited played as a garage rock record, the double album Blonde on Blonde inverted that sound, blending blues, country, rock, and folk into a wild, careening, and dense sound. Replacing the fiery Michael Bloomfield with the intense, weaving guitar of Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan led a group comprised of his touring band the Hawks and session musicians through his richest set of songs. Blonde on Blonde is an album of enormous depth, providing endless lyrical and musical revelations on each play. Leavening the edginess of Highway 61 with a sense of the absurd, Blonde on Blonde is comprised entirely of songs driven by inventive, surreal, and witty wordplay, not only on the rockers but also on winding, moving ballads like "Visions of Johanna," "Just Like a Woman," and "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." Throughout the record, the music matches the inventiveness of the songs, filled with cutting guitar riffs, liquid organ riffs, crisp pianos, and even woozy brass bands ("Rainy Day Women #12 & 35"). It's the culmination of Dylan's electric rock & roll period -- he would never release a studio record that rocked this hard, or had such bizarre imagery, ever again. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Following on the heels of an album where he repudiated his past with his greatest backing band, Blood on the Tracks finds Bob Dylan, in a way, retreating to the past, recording a largely quiet, acoustic-based album. But this is hardly nostalgia -- this is the sound of an artist returning to his strengths, what feels most familiar, as he accepts a traumatic situation, namely the breakdown of his marriage. This is an album alternately bitter, sorrowful, regretful, and peaceful, easily the closest he ever came to wearing his emotions on his sleeve. That's not to say that it's an explicitly confessional record, since many songs are riddles or allegories, yet the warmth of the music makes it feel that way. The original version of the album was even quieter -- first takes of "Idiot Wind" and "Tangled Up in Blue," available on The Bootleg Series, Vols. 1-3, are hushed and quiet (excised verses are quoted in the liner notes, but not heard on the record) -- but Blood on the Tracks remains an intimate, revealing affair since these harsher takes let his anger surface the way his sadness does elsewhere. As such, it's an affecting, unbearably poignant record, not because it's a glimpse into his soul, but because the songs are remarkably clear-eyed and sentimental, lovely and melancholy at once. And, in a way, it's best that he was backed with studio musicians here, since the professional, understated backing lets the songs and emotion stand at the forefront. Dylan made albums more influential than this, but he never made one better. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
If Blood on the Tracks was an unapologetically intimate affair, Desire is unwieldy and messy, the deliberate work of a collective. And while Bob Dylan directly addresses his crumbling relationship with his wife, Sara, on the final track, Desire is hardly as personal as its predecessor, finding Dylan returning to topical songwriting and folk tales for the core of the record. It's all over the map, as far as songwriting goes, and so is it musically, capturing Dylan at the beginning of the Rolling Thunder Revue era, which was more notable for its chaos than its music. And, so it's only fitting that Desire fits that description as well, as it careens between surging folk-rock, Mideastern dirges, skipping pop, and epic narratives. It's little surprise that Desire doesn't quite gel, yet it retains its own character -- really, there's no other place where Dylan tried as many different styles, as many weird detours, as he does here. And, there's something to be said for its rambling, sprawling character, which has a charm of its own. Even so, the record would have been assisted by a more consistent set of songs; there are some masterpieces here, though: "Hurricane" is the best-known, but the effervescent "Mozambique" is Dylan at his breeziest, "Sara" at his most nakedly emotional, and "Isis" is one of his very best songs of the '70s, a hypnotic, contemporized spin on a classic fable. This may not add up to a masterpiece, but it does result in one of his most fascinating records of the '70s and '80s -- more intriguing, lyrically and musically, than most of his latter-day affairs. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
After spending much of the '90s touring and simply not writing songs, Bob Dylan returned in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, his first collection of new material in seven years. Where Under the Red Sky, his last collection of original compositions, had a casual, tossed-off feel, Time Out of Mind is carefully considered, from the densely detailed songs to the dark, atmospheric production. Sonically, the album is reminiscent of Oh Mercy, the last album Dylan recorded with producer Daniel Lanois, but Time Out of Mind has a grittier foundation -- by and large, the songs are bitter and resigned, and Dylan gives them appropriately anguished performances. Lanois bathes them in hazy, ominous sounds, which may suit the spirit of the lyrics, but are often in opposition to Dylan's performances. Consequently, the album loses a little of its emotional impact, yet the songs themselves are uniformly powerful, adding up to Dylan's best overall collection in years. It's a better, more affecting record than Oh Mercy, not only because the songs have a stronger emotional pull, but because Lanois hasn't sanded away all the grit. As a result, the songs retain their power, leaving Time Out of Mind as one of the rare latter-day Dylan albums that meets his high standards. Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
When Bob Dylan dropped Time Out of Mind in 1997, it was a rollicking rockabilly and blues record, full of sad songs about mortality, disappointment, and dissolution. 2001 brought Love and Theft, which was also steeped in stomping blues and other folk forms. It was funny, celebratory in places and biting in others. Dylan has been busy since then: he did a Victoria's Secret commercial, toured almost nonstop, was in a couple films -- Larry Charles' Masked and Anonymous and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home -- and published the first of a purported three volumes of his cagey, rambling autobiography, Chronicles. Lately, he's been thinking about Alicia Keys. This last comment comes from the man himself in "Thunder on the Mountain," the opening track on Modern Times, a barn-burning, raucous, and unruly blues tune that finds the old man sounding mighty feisty and gleefully agitated: "I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys/Couldn't keep from cryin'/She was born in Hell's Kitchen and I was livin' down the line/I've been lookin' for her even clear through Tennessee." The drums shuffle with brushes, the piano is pumping like Jerry Lee Lewis, the bass is popping, and a slide guitar that feels like it's calling the late Michael Bloomfield back from 1966 -- à la Highway 61 Revisited -- slips in and out of the ether like a ghost wanting to emerge in the flesh. Dylan's own choppy leads snarl in the break and he's letting his blues fall down like rain: "Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches/I'll recruit my army from the orphanages/ I've been to St. Herman's church and said my religious vows/I sucked the milk out of a thousand cows/I got the pork chop, she got the pie/She ain't no angel and neither am I...I did all I could/I did it right there and then/I've already confessed I don't need to confess again."
Thus begins the third part of Dylan's renaissance trilogy (thus far, y'all). Modern Times is raw; it feels live, immediate, and in places even shambolic. Rhythms slip, time stretches and turns back on itself, and lyrics are rushed to fit into verses that just won't stop coming. Dylan produced the set himself under his Jack Frost moniker. Its songs are humorous and cryptic, tender and snarling. What's he saying? We don't need to concern ourselves with that any more than we had to Willie Dixon talking about backdoor men or Elmore James dusting his broom. Dylan's blues are primitive and impure. Though performed by a crackerjack band, they're played with fury; the singer wrestles down musical history as he spits in the eye of the modern world. But blues isn't the only music here. There are parlor songs such as "Spirit on the Water," where love is as heavenly and earthly a thing as exists in this life. The band swings gently and carefree, with Denny Freeman and Stu Kimball playing slippery -- and sometimes sloppy -- jazz chords as Tony Garnier's bass and George Receli's sputtering snare walk the beat. Another, "When the Deal Goes Down," tempts the listener into thinking that Dylan is aping Bing Crosby in his gravelly, snake-rattle voice. True, he's an unabashed fan of the old arch mean-hearted crooner. But it just ain't Bing, because it's got that true old-time swing.
Dylan's singing style in these songs comes from the great blues and jazzman Lonnie Johnson (whose version of the Grosz and Coslow standard "Tomorrow Night" he's been playing for years in his live set). If you need further proof, look to Johnson's last recordings done in the late '50s and early '60s ("I Found a Dream" and "I'll Get Along Somehow"), or go all the way back to the early years for "Secret Emotions," and "In Love Again," cut in 1940. It is in these songs where you will find the heart of Dylan's sweet song ambition and also that unique phrasing that makes him one of the greatest blues singers and interpreters ever. Dylan evokes Muddy Waters in "Rollin' and Tumblin." He swipes the riff, the title, the tune itself, and uses some of the words and adds a whole bunch of his own. Same with his use of Sleepy John Estes in "Someday Baby".. Those who think Dylan merely plagiarizes miss the point. Dylan is a folk musician; he uses American folk forms such as blues, rock, gospel, and R&B as well as lyrics, licks, and/or whatever else he can to get a song across. This tradition of borrowing and retelling goes back to the beginning of song and story. Even the title of Modern Times is a wink-eye reference to a film by Charlie Chaplin. It doesn't make Dylan less; it makes him more, because he contains all of these songs within himself. By his use of them, he adds to their secret histories and labyrinthine legends. Besides, he's been around long enough to do anything he damn well pleases and has been doing so since the beginning.
Modern Times expresses emotions and comments upon everything from love ("When the Deal Goes Down," "Beyond the Horizon") to mortality ("The Levee's Gonna Break," "Ain't Talkin") to the state of the world -- check "Workingman's Blues #2," where Dylan sings gently about the "buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down/Money's getting shallow and weak...they say low wages are reality if we want to compete abroad." But in the next breath he's put his "cruel weapons on the shelf" and invites his beloved to sit on his knee. It's a poignant midtempo ballad that walks the line between the topical songs of Cisco Houston and Woody Guthrie to the love songs of Stephen Foster and Leadbelly. One can feel both darkness and light struggling inside the singer for dominance. But in his carnal and spiritual imagery and rakish honesty, he doesn't give in to either side and walks the hardest path -- the "long road down" to his own destiny. This is a storyteller, a pilgrim who's seen it all; he's found it all wanting; he's found some infinitesimal take on the truth that he's holding on to with a vengeance. In the midst of changes that are foreboding, Modern Times is the sound of an ambivalent Psalter coming in from the storm, dirty, bloodied, but laughing at himself -- because he knows nobody will believe him anyway.
Dylan digs deep into the pocket of American song past in "Nettie Moore," a 19th century tune from which he borrowed the title, the partial melody, and first line of its chorus. He also uses words by W.C. Handy and Robert Johnson as he extends the meaning of the tome by adding his own metaphorical images and wry observations. However, even as the song is from antiquity, it's full of the rest of Modern Times bemusement. "The Levee's Gonna Break" shakes and shimmies as it warns about the coming catastrophe. Coming as it does on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it's a particularly poignant number that reveals apocalypse and redemption and rails on the greedy and powerful as it parties in the gutter. There are no sacred cows -- when Dylan evokes Carl Perkins' exhortation to put "your cat clothes on," it's hard not to stomp around maniacally even as you feel his righteousness come through. The great irony is in the final track, "Ain't Talkin'," where a lonesome fiddle, piano, and hand percussion spill out a gypsy ballad that states a yearning, that amounts to an unsatisfied spiritual hunger. The pilgrim wanders, walks, and aspires to do good unto others, though he falters often -- he sometimes even wants to commit homicide. It's all part of the "trawl" of living in the world today. Dylan's simmering growl adds a sense of apprehension, of whistling through the graveyard, with determination to get to he knows not where -- supposedly it's the other side of the world. The guitar interplay with the fiddle comes through loud and clear in the bittersweet tune. It's like how "Beyond the Horizon" uses gypsy melodies and swing to tenderly underscore the seriousness in the words. It sends the album off with a wry sense of foreboding. This pilgrim is sticking to the only thing he knows is solid -- the motion of his feet.
Modern Times portrays a new weird America, even stranger than the old one, because it's merely part of a world consumed by insanity. In these ten songs, bawdy joy, restless heartache, a wild sense of humor, and bottomless sadness all coexist and inform one another as a warning and celebration of this precious human life while wondering openly about what comes after. This world view is expressed through musical and lyrical forms that are threatened with extinction: old rickety blues that still pack an electrically charged wallop, porch and parlor tunes, and pop ballads that could easily have come straight from the 1930s via the 1890s, but it also wails and roars the blues. Modern Times is the work of a professional mythmaker, a back-alley magician, and a prophetic creator of mischief. He knows his characters because he's been them all and can turn them all inside out in song: the road-worn holy man who's also a thief; the tender-hearted lover who loves to brawl; the poetic sage who's also a pickpocket; and the Everyman who embodies them all and just wants to get on with it. On Modern Times, all bets are off as to who finishes the race dead last, because that's the most interesting place to be: "Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind/Bring me my boots and shoes/You can hang back or fight your best on the frontline/Sing a little bit of these workingman blues." There is nothing so intriguing as contradiction and Dylan offers it with knowing laughter and tears, because in his songs he displays that they are both sides of the same coin and he never waffles, because he's on the other side of the looking glass. Modern Times is the work of an untamed artist who, as he grows older, sees mortality as something to accept but not bow down to, the sound that refuses to surrender to corruption of the soul and spirit. It's more than a compelling listen; it's a convincing one.
Words: Thom Jurek