It's fitting, really, that "Spirit on the Water," the second track off Modern Times, contains the lines, "You think I'm over the hill/ Think I'm past my prime." Those thoughts likely race through the minds of Dylan fans everywhere these days whenever a new album is announced. At sixty-five years old, it's safe to say Dylan's best years aren't in front of him. Each release brings stronger suspicions that it may be his swan song, and no one wants to see such an icon embarrass himself with an ill-advised last kick at the can. Thankfully, those fears can be cast aside -- at least for now. With Modern Times, Dylan has managed to conjure up a classic album that matches anything he's produced since his '60s heyday.
In terms of style, Modern Times is quite the misnomer. There's certainly nothing modern about the classic rockabilly tunes or country waltzes that make up most of the album. If anything, that's one of its strengths. In bypassing contemporary sounds, Dylan's songs achieve a level of timelessness -- a true measure of any great work of art. Obviously, it takes more than just the transcendence of time to make an album great, and with Modern Times, that greatness is as much the product of what isn't present as what is.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dylan is not allowing his twilight years to be spent contemplating his mortality. Instead, Modern Times showcases a defiant Dylan who's going to live life to the very last drop. If he chooses to occupy his time recounting pillow-talk promises ("When the Deal Goes Down") or complaining how "some lazy slut has charmed away [his] brains" ("Rollin' and Tumblin'"), then so be it.
Of course, Dylan still has plenty to say about the state of the world (the album is called Modern Times, after all), but he's much too sly to come out with an almost embarrassingly heart-on-sleeve rallying cry like "Let's impeach the president." Dylan knows the score when he sings "The writing's on the wall, come read it, come see what it say," or "If it keeps on raining/ the levee's gonna break," and he's respectful enough to assume you do, too, without beating you over the head with it.
Modern Times may not contain a single song that would rank among Dylan's all-time best, but it doesn't have to. He might not be able to pull a lyrical tour de force like "Mr. Tambourine Man" out of his sleeve anymore, but Dylan's still gifted enough to craft poignant lines about life and love and, more important, he still has the conviction to do so. We'd be wise to ask that he maintain this spirit of defiance for as long as he decides to stick around. Or, to quote another Dylan:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Artist: http://www.bobdylan.com/Label: http://www.columbiarecords.com
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