Editor’s Note: Today, Bob Dylan releases his 37th studio album, Fallen Angels–a direct followup to last year’s Shadows in the Night, in that it’s a collection of covers of American pop standards, most of which were made famous by Frank Sinatra. I’m not gonna lie: I have no interest in listening to this album. Dylan may have created a near-peerless body of work in the 1960s and ’70s, but my goodwill for him isn’t such that I’m going to act excited when his career takes the same direction Rod Stewart‘s took almost 15 years ago. I will, however, resurrect this essay I wrote in 2006, soon after the release of Dylan’s 32nd studio album Modern Times: a record that, in retrospect, seems to portend the ensuing decade of his musical progression (or lack thereof). Back then, I still wanted Bob Dylan to be relevant; now, I’ve given up. And really, that’s fine: if the man wants to spend his dotage mumbling over old-timey arrangements of tunes from the Great American Songbook, he’s certainly earned himself the privilege. It’s just a little disappointing to see the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Fucking Blonde marked by such complacent, dull, backwards-looking new music. In the words of another poet laureate of the Baby Boomer generation, “I hope I die before I get old.” – Z.H.
Well, it’s official. For the first time since, oh, Another Side of Bob Dylan in ’64, Bob Dylan has released three albums in a row without any major stylistic or personal shakeups. Even more startling: those three records have taken him a full nine years to complete, making for a decade’s worth of shuffling, haunted, cowboy-hatted apocalyptic blues croaks from the man who once changed skins like a perpetually moulting snake. This, of course, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; anyone who remembers Dylan’s notoriously uneven years of the ’80s and early ’90s, when he seemed to adopt a new work ethic, production style, and even religion virtually every time we turned around, can attest to the fact that consistency has its merits. But at the same time, it’s hard not to look at Modern Times, the legendary–hell, damn near mythical–singer-songwriter’s 32nd studio album, and not feel at least a twinge of disappointment. After almost a half century of constant, electric, and yes, sometimes bewildering change, it seems that Bob Dylan has finally settled down.
For context’s sake, let’s compare the last ten years or so–from 1997’s Grammy-winning comeback Time Out of Mind to today–with the ten years that, for better or worse, Dylan will never truly be able to escape: the Sixties. In those days, Bob Dylan seemed more like a force of nature than a man, or even an artist. His rise from a humble debut as a dyed-in-the-wool Woody Guthrie disciple to the world-straddling, controversy-engendering peak of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde took only three years; and somehow, during that time he developed a highly individual, enormously influential songwriting style: one that tapped deep into the roots of the American cultural consciousness, yet still managed to transcend everything that had come before. The music of Bob Dylan at his mid-’60s zenith (which itself lasted only a little over a year) is beyond folk, beyond blues, beyond pop, rock’n’roll, and even poetry. It is, somehow, all of those things at once; a staggering body of work by any account, made all the more incredible by the fact that its creator was only 25 years old at the time.
But Dylan didn’t stop there. Instead, he pulled off the first in a rapid-fire series of about-faces in late 1967, with the release of John Wesley Harding: a return to pastoral, acoustic-based music that may have been called a throwback to his folk days, had it not also contained some of his densest, most impenetrable and richly allegorical lyrics to date. Then, a year and a half later, he surprised us again with Nashville Skyline, a more or less straight-faced stab at traditional country and western long before such genre-dabbling was an accepted norm. And from then on, it’s been easy to take for granted that wherever Dylan might go, he won’t be staying there for long. Even the mid-’70s releases widely considered to comprise his first “comeback,” Blood on the Tracks and Desire, are only companion albums in the sense that both are of great quality and both seem to deal with Dylan’s impending divorce from Sara Lownds; listen to those two records back to back and you’ll realize soon enough that Dylan could hardly have found a more wildly different way to follow the austere, confessional Blood than with the strange, vibrant musical gypsy caravan that was Desire and the Rolling Thunder Revue. It may seem strange to assert that, in a career that spans 44 years and over 30 albums, no two Bob Dylan records are quite alike; but, until recently, it was true.
So why, after setting such a precedent, has Dylan decided to release not one or two, but three like albums in a row? The practical explanation, of course, is that they’re a “trilogy”: fair enough, given the musical and thematic consistencies of Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, and Modern Times, but one doubts they were planned as such from the beginning. It’s another, cynical explanation that strikes me as a lot more likely. Most great artists will blaze through their formative years on a chariot of seemingly divine inspiration; after even five years or so of that kind of pressure, though, anybody would get tired. It’s thus tempting to suspect that Dylan simply isn’t relevant anymore: he can’t keep up with the musical or cultural trends of the last 30 years–the guy has barely acknowledged punk–and so he’s settled back into a comfortable groove, growling epic but hardly earth-shattering turns of verse over the same kind of full-tilt blues-rock boogie he pioneered in ’65, albeit in streamlined, traditionalist, NPR-friendly form. Distressingly, recent comments from the man himself would seem to bear this theory out: his recent remarks in a Rolling Stone interview with novelist Jonathan Lethem about the “atrocious” quality of 21st century recordings, while mostly accurate, were just bitter and crankish enough to leave a sour taste in the mouth, leaving many speculating whether Dylan realizes that the times didn’t stop a-changin’ after he stopped singing about them.
But for all that this argument appeals to the naysayer in me, I don’t believe that Bob Dylan has stopped being relevant. Or, more specifically, I don’t think he’s stopped being of the times, because he never really has been. Dylan’s rise as the poet laureate of early ’60s protest folk was purely incidental: a cosmic accident for a young man who would have been playing the same ancient-sounding songs whether there was a commercial “scene” to embrace him or not. “Blowin’ in the Wind” may ostensibly be about the conflicts that troubled the American consciousness in 1963, both at home (the Civil Rights Movement) and abroad (the growing conflict in Vietnam); but its themes–freedom, peace, justice–would have been just as relevant in 1863 (or, as we’ve seen by its continued use in anti-war movements, 2003). Even when Dylan dropped the folkie schtick for his “thin wild mercury” electric blues sound, he was referencing William Faulkner and other early 20th century modernists more than he was deliberately trumpeting the hopes and dreams of the youth culture; about the most topical things Dylan wrote in this trailblazing middle period were the references to “getting stoned” in “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” and cats have been singing about dope since at least the 1920s.
In this sense, then, Modern Times is not a departure or a move backwards from Dylan’s beloved mid-’60s aesthetic. Instead, it’s more of the same: a sideways squint at the culture occupied by the songwriter, filtered through the layers of anachronisms with which he’s always surrounded himself. Though his lyrics, in their oblique Dylanesque way, address the floundering economy, Hurricane Katrina, and even Alicia Keys, the “Modern Times” to which the album’s title refers bear a lot more resemblance to the so-called Modern Era (particularly the years between 1900 and 1950) than to anything recognizably 21st century. From the cover art, with its Classical Hollywood typeface and 1947 photo by Ted Croner (“Taxi – New York – Night“) to the music itself, an impassive mix of boogie blues, folk balladry and even a few breezy, Tin Pan Alley-styled love songs, Modern Times crackles with a deep, almost instinctive appreciation for the last American century–albeit a truncated 20th century that begins with the Great Depression and ends, curiously, long before 1960. But if that doesn’t entirely set it apart from an album like Bringing It All Back Home, the result also sounds a lot less alive.
Don’t get me wrong: I actually like Modern Times quite a bit, and I admire it even more than I like it. It’s an album whose subtle depth reveals itself more and more with every listen; even the uptempo shuffle blues numbers like “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” and opening track “Thunder on the Mountain” grow on you with time rather than blowing you away immediately (probably at least in part because both clock in around the six-minute mark). The problem is it just might be too subtle, an observation best exemplifed by Dylan’s latter-day vocal style; where once he bellowed and sneered and whined and wheezed, sometimes all within the space of a single stanza, now he delivers all of his lyrics with little more than a barely-evident smirk. There are great words here, naturally; words that mine the same ponderous, doom-filled vein of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Love Sick,” as well as examples of the singer’s stilted humor (“I can’t go to paradise no more,” he croons in “Spirit on the Water,” “I killed a man back there”). He just mutters them with such a casual, tossed-off tone that you might miss them the first or second time around.
Musically, too, this set can be a surprisingly tough egg to crack. The charm of Dylan’s non-lyrical work is often its spontaneity, which at its best (think of The Basement Tapes, or the aforementioned Rolling Thunder Revue) can give off the air of a particularly loose hootenanny. The music in Modern Times is certainly spontaneous, and I’d be lying if I called it dull–“Rollin’ and Tumblin'” in particular is great, and probably even better live. But there’s a flatness about the record that I can’t quite pin down, except to say (somewhat ironically, in light of that Rolling Stone interview) that something must have been lost in translation between performance and mixing. It just doesn’t “pop.” The piano that ought to drive “Workingman’s Blues #2,” an otherwise fantastic counterpoint to the original by Dylan’s former tourmate Merle Haggard, is mixed way to the back, virtually buried by the rest of the band. And, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, it actually took the recent iPod commercial (see above) for me to notice the rollicking “Someday Baby”; when listened to in context on the album, it barely rises above the murk.
But what if it wasn’t just about production? What if Modern Times simply was that difficult to get into–another prestige-filled but inscrutable product from the Great Bob Dylan, easy to respect but tough to love? It might sound strange to dig up the old clichés about Dylan’s sense of mystery, his alienating remove from the mindset and understanding of his audience, in the midst of a renaissance that has seen him release an autobiography, authorize a documentary and a biopic, and even host an XM Radio show, all in the space of two years. In the long run, however, none of these have brought us any closer to understanding the man behind the music; Chronicles, Vol. 1 was a beautifully written snapshot of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, but it revealed little of the author aside from his youthful ambitions and reading lists. The Dylan of 2006 is, in the end, no more comprehensible than the Dylan of 1966, 1976, or 1986; even his face these days seems like a mask, its long, craggy lines and ever-present mustache making him look like he’s been sculpted out of wax.
It’s this Dylan–the man of mystery, the icon beloved by millions but known by none–on whom the makers of the new documentary After the Crash wish to shed light. Whether they succeed, however, is another matter entirely. With cooperation from respected fanzine ISIS (but, predictably, none from Dylan himself), filmmakers Rob Johnstone and Andy Cleland posit one pivotal moment as the key to the rest of Dylan’s career: the motorcycle accident he suffered on July 29, 1966. Certainly, it’s a compelling argument. The consensus among the “experts” interviewed in the film seems to be that something happened to him during the resulting sabbatical; he spent a year in reflection (and almost certainly in drug rehabilitation), and when he reemerged in late 1967 with John Wesley Harding, says biographer Clinton Heylin, he was “a changed man.” Further complications–the songwriting “amnesia” that beset him between John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, the battles with dumpster-diving amateur “Dylanologist” A.J. Weberman, and a general feeling of discomfort with a counterculture that had glorified him to the level of a prophet–forced Dylan to withdraw even more into himself. Indeed, the man we see glimpses of in After the Crash bears a very close resemblance to the man I see staring past me from the blurry photograph on the back sleeve of Modern Times: guarded, taciturn, a tight-lipped apparition with a presumably deep distrust of his own audience.
The trouble, though, is that those glimpses are only glimpses. Without the participation of Dylan himself–which was, after all, what made Martin Scorsese‘s No Direction Home such a big deal–After the Crash is the sum of its talking heads’ testimonies. More to the point, these talking heads, aside from having researched him extensively (who hasn’t?), have very little more authority on the subject than you or I; there are a handful of former collaborators, some more significant than others, but about the closest thing we see to an actual friend of Dylan’s here is the late Beat journalist Al Aronowitz. The rest are all contemporary writers–glorified fans, really–whose opinions and speculation can sometimes be interesting, but are just as often incredibly patronizing (“I don’t think people play it that often,” is Patrick Humphries’ snooty appraisal of Nashville Skyline).
Granted, in the rare occasions when a direct participant in the Dylan story is secured for an interview, the film can be a fascinating watch. One major highlight is the interview with A.J. Weberman himself–particularly his story about the end of their relationship, when Dylan actually beat him up in the street and Weberman considered coming after the musician with a wine bottle. If nothing else, this anecdote proves once and for all just how much of a nutcase Weberman was (and still is). A little less juicy, but ultimately more satisfying, is the segment devoted to Desire and the brief flourish of the Rolling Thunder Revue. Indeed, it’s this final act when After the Crash comes most alive, because it’s here where the most principle players contribute: songwriting partner Jacques Levy, “gypsy violinist” Scarlet Rivera, bass player Rob Stoner. It’s so good that it makes me want to see a full-length documentary devoted to the Rolling Thunder era; maybe even attached to a home video release of the notoriously self-indulgent, but historically vital Renaldo and Clara film.
Needless to say, however, a full-length Rolling Thunder Revue doc was not the purpose here–and, despite the back cover’s promise of “rare Dylan footage,” neither was a substantial look at the music. Almost certainly due to licensing and budgetary issues, we get only a teasing glimpse at performances from The Johnny Cash Show, the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, and “Simple Twist of Fate” with Rivera and Stoner from a 1975 television tribute to Columbia Records producer John Hammond; a shame, because these would have been high points of the film had they been included in their entirety. As for Dylan’s music, there simply isn’t any–the soundtrack, a competent, unintrusive soundalike score by tribute act “Dylanesque,” is content to just strum a chord sequence suggestive of “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” which I suppose is a hell of a lot easier on the pocketbook. But budget issues alone can’t explain the filmmakers’ perplexing decision to end their story a few years after the mid-career peak of Blood on the Tracks and Desire, with 1978’s Street Legal–an album that is generally considered to be a missed opportunity at best–and Dylan’s little-understood late ’70s conversion to born-again Christianity. To say the least, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around why a movie that purports to delve into the vagaries of Dylan’s first period in the wilderness would leave us on such an uncertain, deeply unsatisfying note.
Buy Modern Times on Amazon, and stream it on Spotify below: