Parsing the Riddles of Bob Dylan's 'Modern Times'

The more publicly accessible Dylan in an Aug. 24 performance.
The more publicly accessible Dylan in an Aug. 24 performance. (By Stew Milne -- Associated Press)
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Don't bother obsessing over the title of Bob Dylan's marvelous if mysterious new album, "Modern Times." Yes, it's an intriguing choice of words from a man who's a bit of an anachronism. And yes, it's the same title of the old Charlie Chaplin movie about one man's struggle to adapt to an industrialized world.

But decoding the message is a waste of time, what with so many other, more puzzling matters at hand.

For instance, what in the world is Dylan doing riffing on Alicia Keys in the opener, "Thunder on the Mountain"? Is the craggy folk singer and bluesman actually lusting after the young R&B starlet? Is she a metaphor for something or somebody else? Does Dylan have Keys's wondrous song "Fallin' " on his iPod Shuffle? (And does he even own an iPod? One moment, he's railing in a Rolling Stone interview against the quality of modern recordings; the next he's starring in an iTunes commercial on network TV.)

"I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't help from crying / When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line," Dylan croaks on the rollicking, Chuck Berry-style blues number. "I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be / I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee."

All aboard the mystery train!

Later in the song, Dylan is less cryptic: "I want some real good woman to do just what I say / Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this cruel world today."

It's the couplet's latter sentiment that drives "Modern Times," a brooding, introspective album on which Dylan ruminates on regret, faith, romance, chaos, morality and mortality. Not necessarily in that order, and not always in the most direct way possible. But, then, it wouldn't be a Bob Dylan album if it had more epiphanic moments than enigmatic ones, would it?

"I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed / I ain't got enough room to even raise my head," he sings in "The Levee's Gonna Break." Ostensibly, the jump-blues song is about love; but it may also be a nod to Hurricane Katrina, with Dylan observing, with a certain sense of detachment: "Some people on the road carrying everything they own."

More plainly (and more comfortingly, too), in the elegiac "When the Deal Goes Down," he sings: "We live and we die / We know not why / But I'll be with you when the deal goes down."

Dylan is an oracle in whose words people search for The Truth. That's been the case since the 1960s, when he was the precocious kid who managed to revolutionize popular music if not the culture itself; it remains so now that he's actually seen a few things and has, over the past decade, rediscovered his ability to articulate his observations in an artful, meaningful way.

No surprise, then, that Columbia Records is positioning "Modern Times" as the final installment in the great trilogy that began with 1997's "Time Out of Mind" and continued with 2001's "Love and Theft." (Dylan himself has said that it's more like the first installment of a new trilogy. But he's funny like that.)

Recorded with Dylan's freewheeling touring band and produced by "Jack Frost" (one of Bob Zimmerman's other pseudonyms), "Modern Times" lacks the musical sweep of its immediate predecessors. The modest, low-key arrangements -- which tend toward western swing, shuffling blues, Tin Pan Alley pop and atmospheric folk -- are neither epic nor groundbreaking, though they serve Dylan's ragged voice well, surrounding him with a palpable rawness.

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