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Uncharted Waters of Genius,
This review is from: Modern Times (Audio CD)
In his latest Rolling Stone interview, Bob Dylan was quoted as saying "This is the best band I've ever been in, I've ever had, man for man." Quite a compliment coming from someone who's been backed by not only the best session men of the sixties, but The Grateful Dead, The Heartbreakers, and of course The Band. However, after listening to `Modern Times' and `Love and Theft' it really is hard to argue with him. He not only has found a band that can lay down an interesting backdrop to his at times epic poem-like lyrics, but create such good music that it stands up against Dylan's brilliant lyrics as an almost equal competitor for your attention.
Instantly the high level of musicianship is evident on "Thunder on the Mountain". It opens with short punctuated drum fills that bring to mind Cream's "White Room" but instead of Clapton's psychedelic phase, the guitar sound throughout is more in the style of someone like Chet Atkins playing twelve bar blues. Dylan's first line is introduced with a brilliant cymbal wash that sounds like it could be the rock n' roll equivalent of a gong being banged before Confucius speaks. But that first line "Thunder on the mountain and a fire in the moon/the river's in the alley and the sun will be consumed" sounds more like John the Revelator.
"Rollin' and Tumblin' is basically a really great cover of the Muddy Waters classic from 1950. Dylan leaves the chorus as is, but writes completely new verses all his own (certainly the original didn't contain the line about how "some young, lazy slut has charmed away my brains"). The subject matter of the original does remain the same however, with Dylan rattling off lines that sound like they were pulled directly off any classic Delta blues tune ("warm weather's coming in/the bug's are on the vine/ain't nothing more depressing than trying to satisfy this woman of mine"). In fact, this really just exemplifies how Dylan has reinvented himself once again as a bluesman over the last three albums. The entire subject matter of his last three albums has been the subject matter of the Delta blues: religion and women.
Every one of the hard blues songs on `Modern Times' contains the best soloing on a Bob Dylan studio album since "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" - and by soloing I don't mean just one solo stuck in between the words somewhere, but splattered throughout the songs naturally, never once sounding forced. On "Someday Baby" is where it peaks. The fuzzy guitar tone just glows, making you want to kill for whatever vintage tube amp the guitarist had to have been be using, and the rhythm just cooks. This is one of the rare Dylan tunes where the music just slightly edges out the words in terms of pure listening pleasure. Even Dylan`s singing is way above par here, especially listen to the line "So many good things in life/that I've overlooked/I don`t know what to do/baby you got me soooo hooked" and try and say that Dylan's voice isn't just improving with age.
"The Levee`s Gonna Break" is another cover of a classic blues song, this time Memphis Minnie's classic "When the Levee Breaks." The verses are completely Dylan's own, but again the chorus is the same as the original made so famous by Led Zeppelin. Of course before even listening to the song people are going to try and say it has to do with Katrina, but the lyrics have more to do with love and the apocalypse than anything as simple as a natural disaster. Take for instance the line "Put on your camp clothes mama/put on your evening dress/few more years of hard work then there'll be a thousand years of happiness." Even an atheist like myself knows what he's talking about. And then there's the final line "some people still sin and some are wide awake."
The subtle apocalyptic messages of "The Levee's Gonna Break" perfectly set up for the eight minute plus epic closer, "Ain't Talkin." The feel is the same as `Time Out of Mind's "Highlands", but Dylan's lyrical flow never gets disrupted for a six minute retelling of a conversation with a waitress. The imagery in the song is dark, dangerous, and not very hopeful. Picture Dylan walking down a lonely path through the Mystic Garden, in the cities of the plague. His sick mule and blind horse are walking by his side. At one point he is hit from behind by an unknown stranger. Bad idea - the Dylan here is no one to mess with, he waits for his opponents to be caught sleeping and then slaughter's them where they lie. Dylan also manages to fit in some of his usual subtle sarcastic wit, this time directed at his disillusion with the trappings of fame - "well the whole world is filled with speculation/the whole wide world which people say is round/they will tear your mind away from contemplation/they will jump on your misfortune when you're down...someday you'll be glad to have me around." Later he returns to religion, reaffirming his status as a diehard Christian, but still distancing himself from any organized view of it - "ain't no altars on this lonesome road" Really I could go on and on about this song, which is the crown jewel of the set, with every new verse being a revelation. Musically the song is even more menacing than "Highlands" with the addition of a perfectly minimalist use of lurking viola, even though it ends with a happy crescendo, it only adds to the feel of apocalypse like it was a musical representation of Jesus returning.
`Modern Times' is Dylan's third straight masterpiece in a row and only cements the fact that his current period can only be compared to his inspired 1964-66 run. Certainly you could argue that with 4-5 years between albums it's nowhere near as prolific, but when the albums are this shockingly and consistently brilliant song after song who cares? To quote the review in Rolling Stone, "there is no precedent for the territory Dylan is now opening with albums that stand alongside the accomplishments of his wild youth." The only person to even come close is (as always) Neil Young. Dylan himself, in the same interview, when asked about this being the third part of a trilogy beginning with 'Time Out of Mind' gives the best description of how great `Modern Times' really is: "'Time Out of Mind' was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner [referring to his second infamous "dry period" after 1989's `Oh, Mercy' where he didn't release any original material]...on this record, I ain't nowhere, you can't find me anywhere, because I'm WAY gone from the corner
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Showing 1-5 of 5 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 8, 2007 1:12:40 PM PDT
Matthew T. Bennett says:
A well written and thoughtful analysis of Modern Times and having had the pleasure of seeing Dylan earlies this summer at Bethel Woods ("Woodstock") I must agree that he's got a great band and he's in top form; they sizzled. One very, very small quibble, I believe the line is the "buds on the vine" not the "bugs on the vine".
One funny aside, before closing the "Woodstock" show, Dylan spoke (the only time during the whole concert) and said something to the effect that it was nice to be back, that last time they had to play at six in the morning...as any Dylan fan knows, he wasn't at Woodstock, but Jimi was...and then they launched into a Hendrix inspired version of All Along the Watchtower....classic Dylan
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 9, 2007 5:12:51 PM PST
Yeah I saw Bob on this tour in Toronto, came all the way from Cleveland for it and it was totally worth everything and more. It very well may be "buds" not "bugs", but hey, you know how Dylan sings. Thanks for the positive comment!
Posted on Jun 10, 2008 4:30:07 PM PDT
Johnny Hodges says:
Yeah, the boppers are great, but how can you not mention the heart stirring ballads. Maybe they move me more because I'm in my 60's, but the placement of the ballads between the rockers that make both shine more by contrast and provide an overall listening experience that make this one of the rare CD's that can be enjoyed in its entirety. I burned a rock CD that had several off MT but they lost some of their glow out of context.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2008 9:19:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 24, 2008 9:20:40 PM PDT
Great review, John - well informed, but not "rub-it-in-your-face-how-smart-I-am&
I'm with you, Johnny Hodges! The ballads are the killers. Two weeks ago, our dear pastor at Northland (Pastor Joel) preached a fantastic sermon on marriage, and how we husbands can be such an (in the words of Tom Cruise Risky Business) "a-hole". Well, here I am, convicted to the verge of tears, and Rob has to then come on, playing the piano, and singing "When The Deal Goes Down". What a way to slay a delicate soul!
Posted on Aug 11, 2013 4:12:20 AM PDT
"Grateful Dead" are a bore. And the bobby d. with them is embarrassing.
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