Thank God for Bob
by Tommy Burton

I’m listening to Bob Dylan’s new album Modern Times as I write this. I am a Bob Dylan fan. I have seen him live ten times. I own every commercial album that’s been released. I have several bootlegs and live performances. Needless to say, I get excited when new Bob material hits the shelves.

I became a fan in the mid-90s when I finally broke down and bought a copy of Freewheelin’ solely based on the cover. Shortly after I discovered this record, Bob was in the hospital and the gloomy Time Out Of Mind was released. Bob recovered, got back on the road, and all was well again. On September 11, 2001, Bob gave us Love And Theft. After that day’s tragic events, it was somehow comforting to hear Bob singing, "Today has been a sad and lonesome day…" after I finally shut off the TV and news reports of the day’s chaos and destruction. Love And Theft is easily one of my all-time favorite albums, not just by Bob, but by anyone. This is from a man who loves a lot of different albums.

So, after ten shows, several CDs, DVDs, and books, here I sit listening to Bob singing "Spirit On The Water" from Modern Times. What do I expect from Bob? Hasn’t he given me enough? I can pore over this man’s catalogue for the next several years and not fully digest it all. A line from the intro to Bob’s lives shows says, "… suddenly shifted gears, releasing some of the strongest music of his career, beginning in the late 90s." Time Out Of Mind won the Grammy for album of the year and Bob has been highly regarded with his last three releases. Like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan is a national treasure who has refused to lie down and die, instead staying hungry and writing and recording material that is worthy of his heralded early work.

It has been forty years since Blonde On Blonde. Over forty since "Blowin’ In The Wind" and "Like A Rolling Stone." I am too young to know the hugeness of those releases. I have only history to tell me what a shock it was when "Dylan plugged in and went electric." While I can appreciate the context of all that, I can only see it and hear it from the distant past. I will never know the impact of first hearing a song like "Like A Rolling Stone" on the radio. I will never realize what it meant when Bob became born again. People have put Bob on a pedestal, and they have torn him off, only to place him right back on it again. I don’t think he likes being put up there anyway. The bottom line is this: Those moments were events. My parents got to appreciate those events. They got to live those events. Events that I can only read about or see on television.

In 2006, with Modern Times (like Love And Theft before it), these are our events. Moments that are our own. I know that Bob is for everybody. This is why I cannot claim them for my own. They are ours. Bob Dylan is just as important over forty years later. He is still giving us strong material that will stand alongside our parent’s moments.

Bob recorded Modern Times with his current touring band (my personal favorite band I’ve seen him with): Tony Garnier, George Receli, Stu Kimball, Denny Freeman, and Donnie Herron. Like Love and Theft before, he also produced the album himself under the nom de plume Jack Frost. The cohesiveness of this band shines through every track as it swings through folk, rockabilly, and blues. This music is timeless and holds no place under strict stylistic filing.

I prefer Bob’s modern growl to even the earlier nasal snarl that adorned his earlier work. That war-worn voice has seen better days, but it’s weary enough that you hang onto every word as if it were coming from someone wiser and more prophetic than anyone you’ve ever know. When Bob says that he’s looking for Alicia Keys on the first track, "Thunder On The Mountain," you can’t help but to believe it as opposed to tossing it off into the modern era of hip "shout-outs." The track has a powerful Chuck Berry backbeat that adds more power to Bob’s strong lyrics.

The band eases into the shuffle of "Spirit On The Water" like an old well-worn shoe. It can be compared to the romantic "Moonlight" on Love And Theft. The words match the romance as Bob professes his profound love for the song’s subject. "If I can’t have you, I’ll throw my love into the deep, blue sea."

"Rollin’ And Tumblin’" is Bob’s tribute to Muddy Waters. It’s blues as strong as anything on Highway 61 Revisited. The big difference is that those blues may have been slightly forced, more of an exploration. These blues are lived-in and speaks from experience. Its chugs along at a steady tempo and it never steps out of line. The band is locked in and locked down.

Bob is back to love "When The Deal Goes Down." Here, he is making the life-long pact that he will be by his lover’s side. It’s futile to decipher who or what Bob is always talking about, but it’s incredible to hear his balance of God and love. This has been an ongoing element to his songs since the controversial "Gospel period."

The tempo picks back up with rockabilly backbeat of "Someday Baby." This time, Bob’s got leaving on the brain. He just can’t handle the women he so deeply loves. Again, behind Bob’s lyrics and voice, the band keeps things in check with some of the most tasteful soloing committed to tape in the last ten years. "Someday, baby, you’re not gonna be with me no more…"

"Workingman’s Blues #2" is not Bob’s sequel to Merle Haggard’s hit, but it could be. It’s an epic unto itself with one of Bob’s most beautiful melodies. Bob easily plays the part of preacher, romantic, and poet with equal fervor all in one song. He’s a student of song history and every bit of it shows through on this ballad.

The record moves right back into the easy shuffle of "Beyond The Horizon." This song could have been written in the 30s. Or the 50s. But it was written today. The lyrics take center stage again as Bob tells us, "Beyond the horizon, I found you just in time." It’s all about not believing that one can still be so in love after everything one has been through.

In a perfect world, "Nettie Moore" would be the hit single associated with this record. However, Bob is above writing hits and certainly cannot be bothered. The soft thud of the bass drum gives way to a lilting chorus of longing and loss. This is pure musical poetry. Anyone who needs proof that Bob Dylan has still got it, take one listen to "Nettie Moore." I’m certain this song will take its rightful place in Bob’s laundry list of great material.

Bob returns to flood waters with the blues-shuffle of "The Levee’s Gonna Break." You could easily apply the lyrics to the recent events in New Orleans, but I’m almost positive that Bob was just rewriting another old blues song. Led Zeppelin this ain’t.

The album closes with the ballad "Ain’t Talkin'." Bob tells us that he’s through talking and that he just wants to be left alone. By giving up talking, he’s saying a lot. The track is as righteous and indignant as Johnny Cash is at his most forthright. It swaggers and makes a powerful statement about the state of affairs of whatever you want them to be. One of the great truths of Bob is that you can apply them almost anywhere to any situation.

Some of the things I’ve read concerning Modern Times is that it could easily be the third part of a trilogy that began with Time Out Of Mind. I think it’s only the third-in-a-row album of very strong Bob Dylan performances and material. Stylistically, Modern Times is closer to Love and Theft than Love and Theft is to Time Out of Mind. So, if anything, Modern Times is a sequel to Love And Theft and we’ve yet to hear the third part. Here’s hoping we get it.

"Strongest music of his career" indeed. Bob Dylan is not yours or mine. He’s all of ours, thank God.

Copyright 30 Aug 2006 We Like Media.
You may email Tommy Burton.