Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bob Dylan, "Modern Times": First impressions

Bob Dylan's new album, Modern Times, is incredibly relaxed. Most of the songs are mid-tempo shuffles, with the arrangements focusing on texture (a guitar riff here, a drum fill there, a bit of violin) rather than on power. There are only a couple real rockers, and even they are not played for rock-and-roll drive.

My first listen was last night after supper, with three kids running round (well, okay, Sara was not running around, since she can't walk yet, but it's a metaphor). The sound of the CD made the whole living room calm; the kids' energy did not seem hectic with these gentle but pulsing rhythms surrounding them. Despite being very worn out, I just sat there on the couch and enjoyed the music and the kids.

I've been catching bits of lyrics here and there, but nothing that makes me want to cite anything yet. Lots of nice turns of phrase, as always, and a healthy dose of lines that are actually clichés, but that sound beautiful in a song. Also, the lyrics are not included with the disc, and I have not yet been able to find them on line.

In fact, the phrases that keep coming to me tend to be from songs from Dylan's last, Love and Theft, which just indicates that this CD sounds a lot like that one—and why shouldn't it? One feature of both Love and Theft and Modern Times is just how wonderfully recorded they are.

The titles that have struck me the most on Modern Times are the first two, "Thunder on the Mountain" (not a rocker; the thunder is in the distance, as it were) and "Spirit on the Water" (with some exquisite rhythym riffing from the guitars), as well as two ballads, "When the Deal Goes Down" (with its title that sounds familiar to any Deadhead) and "Nettie Moore." The last of these is the most singular tune on the CD musically: the groove is much less pronounced, and the sparseness of the arrangement (though not the details) recalls the exquisite "Sugar Baby" from Love and Theft. The arrangement of the drums deserves special mention: using mostly just a straight-four bass drum, with some percussion details added on the choruses (or perhaps they are bridges?), George Recile has produced a masterpiece of minimalism in his playing here.


Donald Brown said...

Well, I have to cite this:

There's an evening haze settling over town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buying power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's getting shallow and weak
Well the place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

First of all, whoever expected Dylan to use "proletariat" -- and then NOT to use it as an end rhyme. Also that bit about wages was already sounded in "Union Sundown," a pretty mediocre song from '83 but fun in a cantankerous way. Lines like this are redeemed by the wonderfully swanky elegaic feel of this song ("Workingman's Blues" #2). Not many can pull that off

mrjumbo said...

Glad you're getting as much of a kick from the new Bahb as I have been.

The line about the proletariat and the line about Alicia Keys stick out as sore thumbs. He has some lyrics that just ramble on, and others that are more pointed. You can find full lyrics at MetroLyrics.

The sound of the album harks back to the 1950s (and earlier) swing and blues he's been exploring lately in his XM radio show and elsewhere. It's gentle like Chet Atkins; you hear nylon string guitars and not much distortion. Here and there Chuck Berry riffs extend the sound to the later '50s. This is grandpa music, but nicely visited.

I'm more taken by the gentler ballads here than by the uptempo numbers, though I like a lot of those too. "Spirit on the Water" is a definite standout, with the repeating falling guitar line the Los Angeles Times called "as polished as a gigolo's smile." Ann Powers, writing for the Times, felt the album was more sexy ("saucy," "spicy") than most of the oeuvre, calling "Spirit on the Water" a "make-out ballad." I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it is a beautiful, lush love song. As in the rest of the album, it's got a blatantly racy line ("Put some sugar in my bowl") sprinkled in between heartfelt feeling ("I'm blinded by the colors I see") and apocalypse ("I can't go to paradise no more/ I killed a man back there"). Again as in most of the rest of the album, reference hunters will find plenty of allusions in the lyrics, from the Bible tag in the title and first lines ("Darkness on the face of the deep") to the randy blues cribs that got the L.A. Times all hot and bothered.

Probably some of the other tunes are stronger lyrically; the album does have a lot of cliche, as you pointed out. Dylan has a history of breathing new life into cliches (Who can deny the power of "just keep on keepin' on" by the time we've made it through to the end of "Tangled Up in Blue"?), but sometimes a cliche is just a cigar. Still, for a tightly packed lyric, try:

I laugh and I cry and I'm haunted by
Things I never meant nor wished to say
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul, our shadows roll
And I'll be with you when the deal goes down

From the Bible to the blues to the weather and the locomotive to the absolute devotion and the awareness of language as a cutting tool, you've got a lot of Dylan themes entangled there. I probably like that tune ("When the Deal Goes Down") even better as a love song than "Spirit on the Water," maybe because it's a stronger lyric. He can spin a cliche like "More frailer than the flowers, these precious hours" into the fresher jab of "I picked up a rose, and it poked through my clothes."

Dylan's earliest springboard to renown was the Woody Guthrie sound, but throughout his career he's been a scholar of older verse, whether old Scottish ballads or vivid French images or homespun blues. Mostly in his albums, that influence has been more of a background color, an augmenting flavor, than the headline attraction. But for the past decade or so, his releases have particularly spotlighted these ingredients, from "Good As I Been to You" and "World Gone Wrong" (1992 and 1993), which were entirely remakes of old folk tunes, through his 1997 tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (14 knockout tunes with everyone from Steve Earle to Jerry Garcia's last recording ever). I've heard Dylan sing Gershwin tunes.

Although all the songs here are Dylan originals, his historic influences are given bigger roles than in most of his previous stuff. "Nettie Moore," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and "The Levee's Gonna Break" are all examples; in each, he takes an older, well-known classic and almost completely reworks it to his ends. The Memphis Minnie tune most of us know from Led Zeppelin's fourth album keeps its refrain but turns into a love song/redemption song with a whole new lyric; he tweaks the rhythm in the refrain (as he often does with his own tunes when he's playing them live) either to remind us that he's the song's owner now or to keep it fresh.

But Nettie Moore may be the one with the chilliest moment on the album. As in many of his classic albums, he piles on lyrics with shards of bright images that don't add up to anything in particular, touching the same familiar themes--Bible, blues, weather, love. He puts in the Southern and the Yellow Dog, and he touches on Frankie and Albert, but then in the refrain, instead of copying it intact from the old love ballad, he closes it "I loved you then, and ever shall/ But there's no one here left to tell/ The world has gone black before my eyes."

You could say he's gone from "Not Dark Yet" to "O.K., it's dark now."

Plenty of other fun stuff in here, and more than anything else I notice the sound, that old-timey feel behind the Dylan riffs. Relaxing is a great way to describe it. I hear "Beyond the Horizon" and can't not think of "Beyond the Sea." The feel reminds me (though not so emphatically retro) of Sinead O'Connor and Rickie Lee Jones doing throwback albums of their favorite childhood radio tunes. If you ignore the lyrics for a moment, each Dylan album has shown him to be an increasingly better musician than in the albums that came before.

I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it too.

Andrew Shields said...

Mr. Jumbo,

I did not mind the proletariat, and I had not yet noticed Alicia Keys. But since AK is only a name to me and nothing more, it's just shorthand for "a pop singer," and I'd rather have a specific name there than just "a pop singer."

Thanks for the Metro Lyrics link, which I have raided for the complete lyrics. I can send you the file if you have not downloaded the words yourself yet.

All the reviewers are talking about the "harking back to an earlier sound" thing, but I listen to enough music that sounds like that, and that is new, that it seems like bullshit to me. Lucinda Williams and Greg Brown being the two main examples of making absolutely new music out of "old-fashioned" styles. Besides Bob, of course. And I'm delighted that he's taking the sound of "Moonlight" and "Floater" further, rather than the straight rock of "Summer Days" and "Honest with Me."

The little guitar line on "Spirit on the Water" is truly one of the finest things on the album, the LA Times line is brilliant: "as polished as a gigolo's smile."

You've also nicely developed my point about cliche: it's the way Dylan turns cliche on its head that makes his cliches brilliant. Neil Young has always been good at that; in fact, he's often at his best when he lets himself wallow in cliche.

"When the Deal Goes Down" echoes nicely in my Deadhead ears, as I said, and the passage you quoted is simply Dylan's magic at work: as you suggested, the blending of so many directions in such a short space is one of his absolute trademarks. And the verse reminds me of the wonderful extra verse that Steve Goodman wrote for David Allan Coe in "You Never Even Called Me By Name":

well, a friend of mine named steve goodman wrote that song and he told me it was the perfect country & western song. i wrote him back a letter and i told him it was not the perfect country & western song because he hadn't said anything at all about mama,
or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk. well he sat down and wrote another verse to the song and he sent it to me, and after reading it, i realized that my friend had written the perfect country & western song. and i felt obliged to include it
on this album. the last verse goes like this here:

well, i was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
and i went to pick her up in the rain
but before i could get to the station in my pickup truck
she got runned over by a damned old train

I also like your reference to "Not Dark Yet," which I have a wonderful live recording of Greg Brown doing (in fact, I have a whole CD of Greg doing Dylan from various live recordings: brilliant stuff).