Monday, November 12, 2012

Bob Dylan Returns To Singing (Singing Well!) With Modern Times!

The Good: Singing voice, Generally decent lyrics
The Bad: Musically indistinct
The Basics: Bob Dylan returns to his tradition of singing so he might be understood and presents a lyrically fine, musically muted album with Modern Times.

I take some flack as a reviewer for reviewing Bob Dylan albums objectively, without any regard to historical perspective. The albums are rated on their merit, not on a sliding scale that accounts for how radical the album may have appeared at the time, when it debuted in the mid-1960s. I strive for objective reviews on everything, putting everything on a consistent scale so readers have a reasonable continuum for comparison. So, it was with delight that I picked up Bob Dylan's album Modern Times, a disc that was released in 2006 and therefore has no historical context to leave my detractors believing I am needlessly poking at Bob Dylan.

With ten tracks clocking in at just over sixty-two minutes, Modern Times presents a more mellow Dylan than some of his other albums and I found I thoroughly enjoyed the light folk-rock sound of his songs on it. Actually, what stood out from the very first track was the fact that I could understand everything that Dylan was singing! For this album, Bob Dylan returns vocally to the sound and feel of his earliest albums and it works!

Modern Times is largely an album about interpersonal relationships as opposed to politics. The closest to politics Dylan gets on this album is commenting on socioeconomic differences. He sings about poverty and the menace of drowning with "The Levee's Gonna Break" and he sings about wage inequities and the devaluation of the dollar on "Workingman’s Blues #2." But most of the songs are about people and how they relate to one another on a more intimate level as opposed to a societal level.

The album has Dylan's trademark penchant for fine diction and poetics with his musical stories. He creates songs that have a wonderful sense of mood and sense of setting. So, for example, on "Ain't Talkin'," he writes about "The city by the bay" and how it has an oppressive atmosphere where one feels confined with lines like, "Still yearnin' / I've got to get you out of my miserable brain."

As with many of his previous albums, he has some poetic observations on how people relate and he continues to tell innovative musical stories through his songs. He sings about the sheer joy of love and desire when he sings, "When you're with me / I'm a thousand times happier than I could ever say /What does it matter /What price I pay? / They brag about your sugar / Brag about it all over town / Put some sugar in my bowl / I feel like laying down /I'm as pale as a ghost / Holding a blossom on a stem . . ." ("Spirit On The Water"). Even his more simple rhyme schemes evoke images in the mind and work beautifully to tell his stories.

But Dylan also illustrates just how hip and current he can be. In the album opener, "Thunder On The Mountain," he references Alicia Keys! And for a well-respected gentleman of folk rock, it's somewhat surreal to hear Dylan sing the word "slut" on "Rollin' And Tumblin'." I suppose he adapts to the time or becomes as audacious as the time. Or hearing him use the word just illustrates how common it has become in our daily lexicon. Either way, on Modern Times, Bob Dylan once again seems relevant and living in the now.

Those who have shied away from Bob Dylan because of his vocal presentation of his music will want to pick up Modern Times. Here he has a beautiful, if slightly raspy, voice that has a mellow sound to it. He stays comfortably within his range and there are moments where he sounds virtually identical to Bruce Springsteen!

But even better, he is singing with articulation, like he hasn't in decades! His voice is clear, his intonations are direct and he is eminently comprehensible! On this album, he does not mumble, he does not drawl. Each word is sung carefully as if he is determined that the listener will not miss any. I've long argued that going back to Dylan's early works illustrates he can sing and that his oft-parodied mumbling quasi-musical drawl is a stylistic choice and on this album he reaffirms that by returning to his roots and letting his more organic voice out.

What does not work nearly as well on Modern Times is the sound of the music. I enjoyed the album, but truth is, musically there is nothing that stands out. Unlike some of his more produced albums, this album does not fill the songs up with sound, preferring instead a more intimate and down-home feel on many of the tracks. Dylan plays guitar, harmonica, and piano on various tracks and he is backed by an array of musicians who are very much back-up performers, never even approaching the level of sound Dylan presents at the front of each song.

Most of the songs are sung as if Dylan is sitting on a stool a few feet away singing his stories like a coffee house folk artist with minimal accompaniment. The sound works well for him and it keeps the listener focused on the lyrics Dylan is singing.

The problem, then, is twofold. None of the tracks leap out musically and none of them become more than they are musically. After listening to the album seven times, I've discovered the track to track sound of the songs is so consistent and generic that not one of the tunes actually stayed with me. The very first time I heard "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," I had the melody lodged in my skull. Nothing on this album is so memorable. On tracks like "When The Deal Goes Down," Dylan plays a slow, musing tune that is vaguely tonal to accompany the song he is singing. The piece has an ad libbed quality to it as far as the music goes. Obviously, it must have been carefully constructed, but the melody is so subtle and difficult to perceive that it ends up unmemorable. The result, which is common throughout the album, is that the tune is actually rather unmemorable.

The scope of the album is thus downsized by the sound of the album. The songs remain intimate and strangely introverted as opposed to feeling like they are microcosms of our larger world. Track to track, this is Bob Dylan the performer sitting on a stool or piano before you in a small concert hall or the neighborhood coffee bar.

And he plays the music safe and cool. Nothing challenges our preconceptions of his abilities. Instead, he remains safe, pedestrian, safely enshrined within the limits of what we have heard from him before. It's a shame that he did not choose to create something distinctive and original within that range, but with a fairly simple sound, the album blends into itself upon multiple listens.

This is a good album for anyone looking for a mellow listening experience with good lyrics that transport the listener to another place or mood. The best track is "Spirit On The Water," the weakest link is "Nettie Moore," which left less of an impression than most of the tracks.

For other Bob Dylan reviews, be sure to check out my takes on:
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Another Side Of Bob Dylan
Early Album Boxed Set
Blonde On Blonde
Blood On The Tracks
No Direction Home
Love And Theft


For other music reviews, be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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