Bob Dylan for the last few years has been one of the most exiting artists rock has to offer. He has written a best selling book, toured extensively, and recorded two highly regarded albums, putting him in a late career renaissance
Starting with 2001's effort, LOVE AND THEFT, and now this album, MODERN TIMES, Bob Dylan has newly occupied musical territory. Dylan has broken new ground with both these releases. Nothing in post-millennium rock sounds anything like these two records, and for good reason. Bob Dylan has turned back the clock to pre-rock and roll, and recorded some of the most exiting music of his career, focusing solely on American traditional music.
Dylan came into critical acclaim with the 1997 album, TIME OUT OF MIND. His first album of original songs in seven years, TOOM won best album of the year at the Grammies, and the first of three critically acclaimed albums. MT has been marketed as the end of this "trilogy," but Dylan disagrees with that assessment. TOOM, great album that it is, sounds totally separate from L&T and MT and is an album unto itself, totally separate from the music found on the next two releases. Dylan said MT would be the second part of a trilogy, if there is going to be one, with L&T being the first part.
When LOVE AND THEFT was released, Dylan impressed the critics and the fans a second time in a row. L&T is a markedly different album than its predecessor, TIME OUT OF MIND, which is a much darker, aesthetically different album. MODERN TIMES is very much a companion album to L&T, and proves the methodology behind his 2001 effort was not a one off fluke. Dylan does a wide variety of traditional music on MT, from blues to ballads to crackerjack rock and roll to apocalyptic visions of oncoming doom.
Song for song, MT is as strong and L&T, with a few casual masterpieces. "Working Man's Blues #2" is fantastic, some great lines. "Ain't Talkin'", MT's last song, is not only the best song from album, but also one of Dylan's greatest songs of the last 25 years, easily the equal of any of his 1960s output and a lyrical tour-de-force, the newest of his great story, apocalyptic story songs.
Dylan largely writes from the perspective of one who has seen it all, but keeps on trucking (like the narrator from "Tangled Up In Blue").
Both records have been tremendously successful. MODERN TIMES went to number one on the billboard charts, Dylan's first since the 1976 album DESIRE. Dylan is the oldest person (65 at the time), to have a number one album on the charts. "Someday Baby" won a Grammy.
MT is largely a further exploration of Americana. Just like its predecessor, MT is squarely rooted in pre-rock music. Like L&T, MT sounds fresh, startling, and deeply relevant due to it being so firmly rooted in American traditional music. There is no other musician today who makes these traditional forms so wonderfully alive, and yet so in sync with his or her own unique and musical vision as Bob Dylan does, while still making them so accessible to today's public.
Both titles are a clue to what the album is about. L&T is Dylan's love for prerock music, and his ransacking of the forms (a sly reference to the folk tradition). MODERN TIMES, is rather ironic, as there is nothing modern about the music itself, but the title also acknowledges, in a post modern sort of way, that the album is recorded and presented in modern times for modern audiences, and a knowing reference to Charlie Chaplan's film.
Also, Dylan has gone on interviews saying this is the best band, man for man, that he's had, which is saying a lot, as he was backed by so many great bands. Dylan's also made several comments about how compressed the sounds are on modern records, something he had tried to stay away from.
Where L&T used early 20th musical structures and genres, Dylan wrote all the music and lyrics. With MT, however, Dylan has turned too T. S. Eliot for advice, who famously said "Bad poets imitate. Good poets steal." Working within what is known as the "folk tradition", Dylan has taken several songs from his encyclopedic knowledge of traditional music, updated either the music or the lyrics or both, and then presented the material as his own. He has also used a few select lines from Henry Timrod, the Civil War poet. Both the songs and Timrod are now in public domain, so the sources are not a legal issue. Regardless, All this has caused some controversy.
First, it should be known that before copyright laws and intellectual property rights became one of the abiding legal preoccupations of the 20th and 21st century, musicians and performers largely worked within the context of an oral and written tradition, freely adapting and changing often well known material and presenting it as original work. This goes far beyond just music as well. This process, known within musical history as the folk tradition, has been going on in American traditional music for decades, and has also been part of rock's long and varied history as well.
However, with the entrance of rock, matters get complicated. Intellectual property rights in the past forty to fifty years have become major legal issues. Now, music is copyrighted and royalties get paid. Songwriting credits determine who get paid. Those who wrote original music want to get paid when that music is used. While most of MT's music is modeled after other artists' songs, the credits read "All songs written by Bob Dylan".
Led Zeppelin is also famous for this type of adaptation, and was even sued by Willie Dixon in 1970 for the use of lyrics in their song "Whole Lotta Love" without him being credited. Dixon won the lawsuit.
Bob Dylan has done this type of adaptation and musical pilfering from the very start of his career. One of his very first original songs to be published, "Song to Woody", used the melody of Guthrie's own "1913 Massacre". There are numerous other instances of this type of artistic pilfering in Dylan's music which for reasons of space I will not go into. A book or scholarly paper is better suited to more fully analyses and explore this element in Dylan's music, not a review on a website. For those curious, I include at the end of this review more info about the MT's sources.
While from a business and artistic standpoint, this adaptation and borrowing, yet not crediting the source, is rather alarming to modern audiences, it's my belief that that has what made MT and L&T resonate so well. There is something in both records that simply strike a chord with listeners. Dylan has always been about traditional music, and while he ventured out to record different varieties of music, the American traditional songbook has always been in the back of Dylan's mind.
What has made MT and L&T so successful is they feel like an aural history of American music before 1950. Of all the major rock artists of the modern era, Dylan is the most versed in the rich American traditions. American traditional music have always been the bedrock of his muse, and with L&T and MT Dylan wisely makes that the central focus of his work. This music sounds like a time capsule, music made by an American for Americans before the advent of rock and roll. Dylan is the most qualified of all our major rock artists to make music with this timeless, traditional feel.
Due to his own unique position in rock history, no other major musician other than Dylan has released an album with all the rich history of Americana so inherently woven in the fabric of his new music. In all likelihood, no other artist probably could. Dylan cut his teeth on traditional music, and he is the most able to make that music relevant again to modern audiences.
Bottom line: fantastic album. Must buy.
Appendix - Sources for MODERN TIMES songs:
*"Thunder on the Mountain" is an update on Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Good'. *"Rolling and Tumbling" is a blues standard, recorded by everyone from Cream, Canned Heat, Robert Johnson, and Eric Clapton. Muddy Waters' version is the most famous. There are over sixty recorded versions of this song.
*"When the Deal Goes Down" uses the melody from Bing Crosby's signature song "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day".
*"Someday Baby" is based off a Muddy Waters song called "Trouble No More".
* "Beyond the Horizon" lifts the entire structure and melody of "Red Sails in the Sunset", written by Jimmy Kennedy and Hugh Williams in 1935.
*"Nettie Moore" lifts the title and some of its chorus though Dylan's melody and lyrics are otherwise unrecognizable.
*"The Levees Gonna Break" is a based on the blues standard "When the Levee Breaks" by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Led Zeppelin reworked the song as well into their own composition, much different from Dylan's.
*"Aint Talkin" derives its chorus from the more up-tempo "Highway of Regret" by the Stanley Brothers