T for Tom

Day 36 – Modern Times – 2006

Posted in A Dylan A Day by johnsontoms on July 27, 2016


Modern Times coasts near to perfection. I want to get that out of the way, to let you know. In case you’ve never listened to it, go now and do so immediately. A couple facts to back that up: it was Bob Dylan’s first number-one-charting record in 30 years since 1976’s Desire, and went number one in a total of 11 countries, including Germany, Canada, Australia; it sold over 4-million copies in the first two months after release, and has sold over 6-million copies total; and Dylan won his 7th and 8th Grammys, for Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Rock Vocal Performance (no seriously, he won for his voice). It remains one of his highest acclaimed albums, and is worthy of all praise. I’ve been waiting for today ever since I started this retrospective, and finally I can see it for more than the record I already loved – Modern Times is validation.

It hits you like lightning from the start, as the “Thunder On the Mountain” kicks off with a booming, rolling introduction of guitar and drum before giving way to that outlaw country rhythm. It sounds like the prairie, but feels like triumph. Within the first opening seconds, listeners can immediately tell – something’s different here. But man, it’s confident.

Where Dylan was trying to recreate something with both Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, he manages to recapture something with Modern Times – quite possibly the spirit of America. This album is notably the first record to feature original artwork not including his face since Knocked Out Loaded, and the blurred taxi itself speaks volumes for how in-touch this record is, with one foot planted squarely in the past and the other moving forward. Iconography like this reinforces the power of the industrial imagination, and even if you don’t believe in the American Dream, it can make your own dreams possible if you embrace it well enough. This is our music, after all. And when you can imagine tales of the frontier west told through cowboy folklore, the idea of a bright light bright city future isn’t far off. The contradiction that naturally exists in filling a record called Modern Times with songs like “Rolling and Tumbling” and “Thunder On the Mountain” feels right – we got to where we are by looking up from where we were, the quintessential mobility narrative.

Most of the album reimagines traditional tunes in foot-shuffling ways, including “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” “Nettie Moore,” and “Spirit On The Water.” By simply reworking the songs into a two-step, Bob Dylan makes his most commanding vocal appearance since Saved, drifting and swooning easily in and out, high and low through the stories of rainy days and dark skies. “Spirit On The Water” is one of my favorite songs he’s ever sung.

And where the previous records failed, Modern Times succeeds in spades. The sound, as compositionally different as it can seem from his rock’n’roll hits, still comes at you like a Dylan record – his voice upfront with a band that plays to it, and not the other way around.

Every time I hear it I think of that image on the front, and it just all makes sense. Then again, New York exists as an idea to me, having never been there. But if I were to go, I hope it would feel like Modern Times. The kind of New York that exists in the finest American literature, where the people never sleep and the music plays loudly and everyone moves in all directions under dark nights and lamplights and dances to jukebox tunes of jazz in smoke-filled rooms built with American dreams and moving fast into tomorrow. That’s Modern Times.

Song: “The Levee’s Gonna Break”

This song always sounded like the slow motion of a big city at night, which goes hand in hand with the album art.


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