Bob Dylan

Modern Times

(Columbia; 2006)

By Alan Baban | 8 September 2006

Well, I’ll be damned. How I’d love to dive in here with my folded tweed jacket and feather-quill, ready to bust out those trochaic triameters--maybe even go all-guns blazing for the “sweeping Alexandrine,” reference Aeschylus, and spill out verbosities like “deracinated” as if I was running for office at the Olympics.

Thing is, and meaning no untoward criticism to the likes of Christopher Ricks and Greil Marcus who have written whopping encyclopedias of books on the man (and in the case of Michael Gray, an actual, wrist-breaking encyclopedia), I doubt whether such close-text analysis of Dylan’s work, at this late-stage renaissance of his career, can amount to more than foggy claptrap. It’s no exaggeration to say that the field of “Bob Criticism” is so waterlogged with other people’s regurgitated mouthwash opinions that all analysis is rendered stale, that the artist himself disappears in the impenetrable fog that has been imposed on, and reinforced, his nourished enigma.

Many critics have strolled straight off that schooled conveyor belt and inevitably labelled Modern Times as the work of a reinvigorated poet, possessing the “observant calm of old masters who have seen enough of life to be ready for anything -- Yeats, Matisse, Sonny Rollins,” as Xgau put it in his Blender review. Of course, as always, some have gone to great troubles to be different and distinguished, blowing all sorts of smoke rings about how Dylan is no Chaplin (no shit), and how Modern Times is unassuming and slight, not to be compared to the caustic bite of Dylan’s intermittent, anthologised classics. It’s like a big childish game of musical chairs, nobody wanting to be that poor schmooze from Time in DA Pennebaker’s ’65 tour doc Don’t Look Back, the guy who doesn’t “get it,” forever stuck between the crosshairs of embittered wit, preserved in the annals of history, a reference point -- a warning. It’s like everybody’s a bustling pack of slimy bratwurst, snorting their snouts in the same trough of sediment dirt.

Nobody can blame us. Dylan’s music invites a ridiculous amount of critical analysis, his legacy unparalleled, his voice eternally relevant to all those who have ever sought a pulse in the sound. This is why we can all pretend to ignore the early ‘80s, and acknowledge that the last decade, Bootleg series and all, has been an exemplary and fitting development in the career of the premier artist of our times. Modern Times is the ultimate capstone on that era, a logical tying up of loose ends, an apotheosis of Dylan’s recent artistic rejuvenation, a period kick-started by ‘97s universally lauded and Grammy toting Time Out of Mind. That record’s cold, forbidding songwriting contrasted with the bouncy, playful jibes of its follow up, Love and Theft, and Dylan does well here to reconcile those two aesthetics on Modern Times, showing the masterful and omnipresent aura of an experienced artist while still managing to innervate that weightiness with enough crackpot lines to fashion this, his 44th album, with balance and poise.