“After spending decades avoiding the media, Bob Dylan suddenly has opted to embrace it. In the past few years, he has appeared in television commercials, granted interviews, and become the host of a weekly satellite radio program” (Metzger). There’s also been a “recent spate of backwards-glancing Bob Dylan projects – Chronicles, Vol. 1, ..the recent Rolling Stone collection of interviews” (Jones), and Martin Scorsese’s “masterful” (Jones) PBS documentary No Direction Home. Dylan’s music is “featured in a Broadway play; and six actors (Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Julianne Moore, Heath Ledger, and Charlotte Gainsbourg) …portray him in the upcoming biopic I’m Not There. Yet…he remains an enigma” (Metzger).
“When the majority of those his age are drifting into retirement, 65-year-old Bob Dylan has put the capper on a three-record run that ranks with the best in his storied…career” (Holter). “It's arguable that at no point since his 1960s heyday has Bob Dylan been as celebrated…Modern Times, the third album to have been released in nearly 10 years and part of a trilogy that also includes 2001's brilliant and upbeat Love and Theft, is easily deserving of such enthusiasm” (CdUniverse.com).
Like Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft before it” (Holter), Modern Times is packed with “musical and lyrical forms that are threatened with extinction: old rickety blues that still pack an electrically charged wallop, porch and parlor tunes, and pop ballads that could easily have come straight from the 1930s via the 1890s” (Jurek). This “is a rootsy, blues-soaked pool of the purest form of Americana” (Holter) – “lazy blues numbers, piano-based songbook pop, and jumpin' country swing” (CdUniverse.com). “Yet these are Dylan-blues tunes. Dylan can’t help but stamp his own personality on things” (Denning). It “is raw; it feels live, immediate, and in places even shambolic” (Jurek) forgoing “the progressive bells or whistles for an understated backing by his touring band” (Holter).
“In 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick comedy Modern Times marked the end of the silent film era, and Chaplin essentially used a love story as the basis for addressing America’s social, political, and economic conditions…For its revival in the ’50s, the movie’s central theme was given lyrics… – ‘Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile, even though it’s breaking’ – and Dylan has employed all of these concepts as the template for his work” (Metzger). “Although he is certainly world-weary” (CdUniverse.com), Dylan’s “songs are humorous and cryptic, tender and snarling” (Jurek). “A lot of life is lived in the verses of these songs” (CdUniverse.com). “Despite the[characters’] trials and tribulations” (Metzger], “they ultimately seek” (Metzger) “connection to one another as well as to a higher power” (Metzger).
“Dylan's voice, which cracks, rasps and moans from the pop singer's pulpit” (Holter). “His determined, gravelly tenor” (Jones) “has always been unconventional and never pretty in any traditional sense, [but] in its raspy magnificence it is simply perfect for this timeless music” (CdUniverse.com). It “hasn't been this rich and emotive since 1976's Desire” (Holter).
On Thunder on the Mountain, the album's opener, Dylan “sings of tracking pop queen Alicia Keys from Hell's Kitchen to Tennessee” (Holter). The song is “a barn-burning, raucous, and unruly blues tune that finds the old man sounding mighty feisty and gleefully agitated” (Jurek) “in such a way as to cast it back in time where it can cross paths with Chuck Berry and early electric, urban blues” (Metzger). “The drums shuffle with brushes, the piano is pumping like Jerry Lee Lewis, the bass is popping, and a slide guitar that feels like it's calling the late Michael Bloomfield back from 1966 – à la Highway 61 Revisited – slips in and out of the ether like a ghost wanting to emerge in the flesh. Dylan's own choppy leads snarl in the break and he's letting his blues fall down like rain” (Jurek).
“Dylan evokes Muddy Waters in Rollin' and Tumblin’. He swipes the riff, the title, the tune itself, and uses some of the words” (Jurek) although he’s also “retrofitted [it] with new lyrics” (Sprague) to turn the tune “into a cautionary tale of impending doom” (Sprague).
He similarly “pilfers…the Sleepy John Estes-by-way-of-Lightnin’ Hopkins nugget Someday Baby” (Metzger) by “tweaking the 12-bar form ever so subtly on the steely-eyed revenge paean” (Sprague). “Those who think Dylan merely plagiarizes miss the point. Dylan is a folk musician; he uses American folk forms such as blues, rock, gospel, and R&B as well as lyrics, licks, and/or whatever else he can to get a song across. This tradition of borrowing and retelling goes back to the beginning of song and story. Even the title of Modern Times is a wink-eye reference to a film by Charlie Chaplin…Besides, he's been around long enough to do anything he damn well pleases” (Jurek).
On The Levee’s Gonna Break, Dylan “twists Memphis Minnie’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ into his own statement about the Hurricane Katrina debacle” (Metzger). “t’s a particularly poignant number that reveals apocalypse and redemption and rails on the greedy and powerful as it parties in the gutter…it's hard not to stomp around maniacally” (Jurek) as the song “shakes and shimmies as it warns about the coming catastrophe” (Jurek) “even as you feel his righteousness come through” (Jurek).
When the Deal Goes Down “alludes to a song by the Mississippi Sheiks, while its opening line immediately brings to mind Cole Porter’s ‘In the Still of the Night’” (Metzger). It isn’t just Cole Porter that comes to mind, though. The song also “tempts the listener into thinking that Dylan is aping Bing Crosby in his gravelly, snake-rattle voice. True, he's an unabashed fan of the old arch mean-hearted crooner. But it just ain't Bing, because it's got that true old-time swing” (Jurek).
Spirit on the Water “conjures Nina Simone’s ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl’” (Metzger). “At first glance, [it] is a seductive love song” (Metzger), “where love is as heavenly and earthly a thing as exists in this life” (Jurek), but as it progresses, it becomes apparent that Dylan is pining for reconciliation in a troubled relationship that he can’t seem to leave behind” (Metzger). Dylan also “coyly…stab[s] at his critics” (Metzger) with the lines “You think I’m over the hill/You think I’m past my prime/Let me see what you’ve got/We can have a whoppin’ good time.” Meanwhile, through it all,
“the band swings gently and carefree, with Denny Freeman and Stu Kimball playing slippery – and sometimes sloppy – jazz chords as Tony Garnier's bass and George Receli's sputtering snare walk the beat” (Jurek).
Although he's not nearly as direct here as he was in his protest song days, there's no mistaking the passion – or position – of songs like Workingman's Blues #2” (Sprague). “His personal state of the union address…serves as the collection’s Rosetta tone” (Metzger). It is “a class-conscious rallying cry that carries traces of Before the Flood in its DNA” (Sprague). “Dylan sings gently about the ‘buyin’ power of the proletariat's gone down/Money's getting shallow and weak...they say low wages are reality if we want to compete abroad.’ But in the next breath he…invites his beloved to sit on his knee…One can feel both darkness and light struggling inside the singer for dominance…This is a storyteller, a pilgrim who's seen it all… he's found some infinitesimal take on the truth that he's holding on to with a vengeance” (Jurek).
“Beyond the Horizon uses gypsy melodies and swing to tenderly underscore the seriousness in the words” (Jurek), words in which Dylan “sets his sights on the afterlife” (Sprague).
“Dylan digs deep into the pocket of American song past in Nettie Moore” (Jurek), a story of “a slave-loving owner” (Holter) built on “a 19th century tune from which he borrowed the title, the partial melody, and first line of its chorus. He also uses words by W.C. Handy and Robert Johnson as he extends the meaning of the tome by adding his own metaphorical images and wry observations” (Jurek).
Album finale Ain't Talkin’ carries “a stark, apocalyptic tone” (Sprague). “Its mournful arrangement, along with its foreboding lyrics, magnifies the notion that contemporary society’s problems have a lot to do with the spiritual vacuity that has been fostered by technological innovation” (Metzger). “A lonesome fiddle, piano, and hand percussion spill out a gypsy ballad” (Jurek) in which “the pilgrim wanders, walks, and aspires to do good unto others, though he falters often – he sometimes even wants to commit homicide…Dylan's simmering growl adds a sense of apprehension, of whistling through the graveyard, with determination to get to he knows not where – supposedly its the other side of the world” (Jurek). “It sends the album off with a wry sense of foreboding. This pilgrim is sticking to the only thing he knows is solid – the motion of his feet” (Jurek).
“These philosophical streams of thought aren’t new, of course, but although his appropriations are blatant, Dylan clearly has made them his own by summarizing 70 years of history with a single, 60-minute masterpiece” (Metzger). “Modern Times feels like an icon weighing in on the events of the day, relying on sounds from the past rather than a spot on evening cable news” (Jones). “Modern Times might be the most upbeat feel-bad album of 2006” (Jones); it “is a contemporary classic that only enhances his mysterious aura” (Metzger). It “is the work of an untamed artist” (Jurek) “who intends to fight on – intent on winning every battle” (Sprague). “As he grows older, [he] sees mortality as something to accept but not bow down to…more than a compelling listen; it's a convincing one” (Jurek).