Classical and opera
Bob Dylan, Modern Times
Friday August 25, 2006
With just hours to go until release, the competition to see who can slather Bob Dylan's 32nd studio album with the most deranged praise known to man is hotting up. The Americans have started strongly. US magazine Blender has ranked Modern Times alongside the work not merely of jazz giant Sonny Rollins, but of Matisse and Yeats, and has deployed the classic Dylan obsessive's strategy of lavishing superlatives on what appears to be an unremarkable lyric. "Wonderful lines galore," it enthused. "Try, 'I got the pork chops, she got the pie.'" Thus is Dylan's place among the deities of modern letters further assured.
What is it about him that makes otherwise intelligent men abandon all sense of rationality, and write stuff like the last Guardian review of Dylan live, which started with the critic announcing he was there to "touch the hem", then got progressively less objective? None of Dylan's peers, their influence on music every bit as tumultuous and far-reaching, can provoke that kind of effect: eyes are narrowed when Paul McCartney releases an album or the Stones tour, and guffaws are barely stifled when Lou Reed brings his t'ai chi master on stage. Dylan is held to be "still doing it for the music", but what are the rest of them doing it for? The money? A desperate attempt to bolster their meagre level of fame?
Certainly, Dylan has enjoyed an artistic renaissance, in that he published a fantastic autobiography and stopped releasing records that made you want to rip your own head off with embarrassment - but that alone isn't enough to explain the mania that greets his every action. Perhaps it is linked to his 1997 brush with pericarditis and intimations of mortality; praise him unequivocally now, while he can still read it.
Either way, it's hard to hear Modern Times' music over the inevitable standing ovation and the thuds of middle-aged critics swooning in awe. When you do, you find something not unlike its predecessor, Love and Theft. It again eschews the straightforward rock approach and sonic embellishments that producer Daniel Lanois brought to 1997's Time Out of Mind in favour of muted rockabilly shuffles and polite, country-inflected pre-rock'n'roll pop. Here are the kind of jazzy songs that would count as mild-mannered crooning if they were performed by Bing Crosby, but which invariably take on a slightly unsettling air when subjected to Dylan's catarrhal death rattle.
Some of these are great. You don't need to believe that Dylan's artistic renaissance is the most important event in western culture since the actual Renaissance to be beguiled by the descending riff of Spirit on the Water, or Nettie Moore's insistent pulse. Like The Friday Night Project's studio audience, Dylan dingbats tend to bust a gut over things that leave everyone else stony-faced: Love and Theft apparently caused uncontrollable mirth by featuring not only the line "Freddie or not, here I come", but also - and if you don't want to die laughing, look away now - "I'm no pig without a wig". Here, though, Thunder on the Mountains is genuinely funny. "I was thinking about Alicia Keys," he sings huskily, "I couldn't help from crying" - a sentiment with which anyone who has experienced the R&B; singer's sanctimonious interviews and rotten poetry ("Hello morning/ Now I see you/ 'Cause I am awake") can heartily concur.
There are two lengthy epics. Workingman's Blues 2 has an elegiac, dying-of-the-light quality, bolstered by the singers' colloidal croak, and vaguely political lyrics: "The buying power of the proletariat's gone down." The closing Ain't Talkin' is a chilling low growl, full of muttered imprecations and intimations of doom. Equally, there are longueurs, songs that outstay their welcome or sound like filler, moments where you find your attention drifting elsewhere - frequently to the question of where all that crap about Matisse and Yeats fits with this largely pleasant and unassuming record.
Modern Times is not one of those infrequent, unequivocally fantastic Dylan albums that allow a non-believer to grasp what the fuss is about, or at least what the fuss was originally rooted in. But that scarcely seems to matter: said fuss seems set to continue until Modern Times and, indeed, modern times are merely a distant memory.
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