Modern Times

Bob Dylan

Columbia, 2006

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


If the late ‘70s and ‘80s were Dylan’s “wandering” years and the late ‘90s and early ‘00s were Dylan’s resurgent years, the last half of this decade could be referred to as the coasting years for the iconic singer/songwriter. He’s starred in a self-indulgent, puzzling, but strangely watchable movie (Masked And Anonymous), toured relentlessly with a band lineup that can play Delta blues, corn poke ballads and straight-up rock, not to mention play his 40-year-plus catalog of hits. In addition, Dylan has also been celebrated in acclaimed documentaries (No Direction Home) and film (I’m Not There).  

With all of this time in the spotlight, it’s hard to believe that during this period, Dylan had one of the largest gaps of time between albums. In 2006, he released Modern Times, almost five years after he released Love And Theft. The critics rewarded Dylan with top album honors in Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll. Heck, even I put it in my top five of 2006.

But beyond the heaps of acclaim leveled upon Modern Times, some started to question the adulation the album received. Were people calling it a classic because it was a genuine classic, worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bringing It All Back Home And Blood On The Tracks, or was it because Dylan was just able to release a good album while his peers (see Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones) have released forgettable albums since their heyday in the ‘60s and ‘70s? my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Regardless of your view, it’s hard to discount the fact that Modern Times sounds a LOT like Love and Theft. It could very easily be called a companion piece to that album. Dylan’s voice still sounds like a gust blowing up the floorboards of a decaying house. The bluesy shuffle of Love And Theft is on full display on “Rollin’ And Tublin’” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” And his humor, part ol’ horny bastard, part gallows humor is on full display with such zingers as “I’ve got the pork chops she got the pie, she ain’t no angel and neither am I.”

But regrettably, much of Modern Times feels too familiar. It’s the kind of familiarity that gets you raves on NPR and fills the music bin section at Starbucks. And it’s only when you stack Modern Times up against Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft that its weak spots show glaringly. Take the last track “Ain’t Talkin’.” It’s a long track, just like Time Out Of Mind’s closing track “Highlands,” but while “Highlands” had a daft character study, propelled by a funeral procession-like piano riff and Love and Theft’s closing track “Sugar Baby” had some of Dylan’s most cryptic and biting lyrics in a long time, “Ain’t Talkin’” lazily ambles along and sounds like the closing credits of a generic spaghetti western.

Three major highpoints make Modern Times a memorable album. The first is the breezy, confident, strutting opener “Thunder on the Mountain.” Dylan famously name checks Alicia Keys and sings “Feel like my soul is beginning to expand” – and with a bluesy lineup that features Stu Kumball and Denny Freeman’s guitar and Donnie Herron’s steel guitar and string, you do get the feel that there’s enough space provided by these great musicians for Dylan to expand his soul. The second highpoint comes in “Someday Baby,” a great, kissoff track that sounds just as great in a bar as it does in a ballroom. Finally, Dylan’s cover of “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is amazing – a classic song performed by one of the few voices in contemporary music that can do the song justice.

Possibly time is the only thing that may differentiate Modern Times from Love And Theft. Some Dylan albums have had to wait years, if not decades to be fully appreciated. But right now, Modern Times sounds like Dylan’s on autopilot. Fortunately, he’s on autopilot during one of the strongest songwriting stretches in his storied career.

Rating: B-

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Agreed, the heaps of acclaim this record received was mind-boggling. And they all mentioned the 'Alicia Keys' reference as if it was some call to the heavens. Big deal, he mentioned another singer! Very odd.

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