Last week I was talking to my best friend about music and mentioned that I was surprised at the excitement generated by Bob Dylan's new album Modern Times. "It's terrible," he said. Although this report wasn't exactly unexpected -- nothing I'd read about it suggested that it was up his alley -- it's vehemence caught me off guard. I wasn't sure what to say. I knew I didn't want to back myself into a rhetorical corner by agreeing implicitly to a critical assessment for which I had no evidence of my own to draw upon. But, as often happens when I'm in conversations about matters of taste, I also didn't want to introduce unnecessary tension into the conversation, particularly since it what was turning out to be an extremely refreshing interlude within a week of enervating stress. So I hedged.I still hear that record in my head all the time. For whatever reason, it penetrated my intellectual defenses and reached that place in my mind where feeling comes first. I do think that it's an excellent and, now that the initial hype has faded, underrated album. But my relation to it traces a detour around any attempt at passing objective judgment on it.
"Although I probably won't like it that much, I'm sure I'll like it better than you," I told him. Then I proceeded to give my take on Dylan's much-discussed renaissance of the past decade-plus. "I didn't like Love and Theft as much as Time Out of Mind. But I liked World Gone Wrong better than either. I like that he was just covering other people's songs in that one." My friend and I then went on to discuss other moments in Dylan's career, including the relative low point of the 1980s. "I liked Infidels," my friend confided, praising its harshness. I reiterated my weakness for sentimental Americana of the sort that inspires Greil Marcus to wax hyperbolic and made it clear that I knew my friend, whose childhood included stints in Israel and Europe, did not share this particular taste preference.
Eventually, the conversation turned to other matters including, rather curiously, the punk-metal band The Melvins, about which I may be writing in a future issue of the magazine. But the portion devoted to Dylan stuck with me through the remainder of the week. Thursday my daughter and I dropped my wife off at the airport at 5:45am and then made our way to Starbucks to read and relax before it was time for her school to start. At various junctures in her still youthful youth -- she will soon turn eight -- we have played her Bob Dylan songs, both in cover versions and on the Greatest Hits collection that confines itself largely to his pre-motorcycle crash incarnations. At first she liked "Blowin' in the Wind," which she knew from a Peter, Paul and Mary album, and "Mr. Tambourine Man" best.
When I put the CD in the car last month, though, needing a change from our recent driving-to-school staples, The Carpenters' Greatest Hits, Cabaret, and Carole King's Tapestry, I was surprised to perceive how her taste for Dylan had broadened. This time the songs she wanted to hear repeatedly were "It Ain't Me Babe" and "Like a Rolling Stone," to which she joined her mother and I in several rousing sing-a-longs that were rich with deeper significance for her parents, because she was finding her way in a lyrical landscape that played an important part in her mother's teenage years and, as a consequence, her father's investment in the song. The timing of Dylan's new album was therefore ideal from my perspective as someone who cares deeply about his daughter's cultural education. I told her about the record and promised that we would buy it when it came out.
As it turned out, it took me longer than I'd expected. I had too many other things to do to go to the places where it would be less than $16.95. When we arrived at Starbucks a little after 6am on Thursday and the record was displayed right by the register, I decided that I might as well buy it there. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who made that impulse purchase, since Modern Times debuted at #1 on the Billboard Charts, the first Dylan record in thirty years to do so. Then again, the new Rolling Stones was displayed just as prominently at Starbucks last fall and didn't do as well, so there must be more to the resurgence in Dylan's commerical success than good product placement.
One thing I've been able to notice, as someone who teaches literature and film to English majors, is that a surprising number of literarily inclined twenty-somethings in the post-9/11 era have a thing for Bob Dylan that can't reduced to a general interest in "Classic Rock" or the 1960s. Obviously, a lot of the reason why Dylan's record is doing so well has to do with all the Baby Boomers and againg Gen-Xers who felt obligated to buy it, whether for themselves or as something to share with their children. But I'd warrant that more people in the pre-settled-down stage of life have purchased Modern Times than someone out of touch with college-age students would have expected.
At any rate, as soon as we began the drive up the hill to my daughter's school, I put the album on for us to hear. She seemed to like it, although she was taken aback by how different the Dylan of the 2000s sounds than the Dylan of the 1960s. I, however, was immediately hooked. I have a deeply ingrained tendency to want to redeem cultural offerings that others reject out of hand, so my friend's "It's terrible" may have inspired me, paradoxically, to listen with a more open mind than usual. But as my desire to hear Modern Times has persisted over the weekend and as, more importantly, the songs on it have repeatedly surfaced as a mental soundtrack when I'm not listening to it, I've had to acknowledge that my taste for it goes deeper than any contrarian impulse. That weakness for sentimental Americana is also to blame. Strangely, though, the album's 1950s-era rock stylings have been striking me, not as nostalgic, but fresh and forward-looking.
Much has been made of Dylan name-checking Alicia Keys on Modern Times' first track, with most commentators seeing it as a sign that he isn't willing to curl up inside a music universe shut off from the contemporary scene. And that seems like a good reading. What I've found, though, is that the record's strangely novel lack of musical novelty is more important than any specific up-to-dateness of Dylan's lyrics. It's like he and his collaborators found the way to reveal the roots in the rock tradition without making the music sound retro. The last song, "Ain't Talkin'," even resembles a mid-70s Fleetwood Mac tune at times, but without feeling in any way derivative.
To me, that is. As my conversation with my friend who found the record "terrible" indicates, there is no guarantee that other listeners will join me in this assessment of Modern Times. Even though it doesn't seem to be a period piece to my ears, I do think that an affection for sentimental Americana may be a pre-requisite for genuine pleasure. More than that, though, I believe that it won't be possible for someone to embrace the album the way I have unless she or he is in a mood to hear gentle love songs. Although there's still plenty of irony in both Dylan's words and delivery, Modern Times is ultimately a collection of love songs in both a literal sense -- the second song "Spirit in the Water" is almost like a late Louis Armstrong song in its unabashed cuteness -- and a metaphoric sense -- the music romances the tradition that it invokes.
Maybe the reason that the record doesn't sound retro to me is that it the songs never lose this sense of an addressee. If there is mimicry here, it is mimicry in the service of continuing the conversation, the way you say, "Yes," to a friend even though you might rather say, "No," just because you want to keep talking. In other words, I'm suggesting that Modern Times manages to avoid the sheen of nostalgia by never forgetting that the music it refers to requires wooing. Without that persistent sense of dialogue, Modern Times might as well have been sung in Latin.
When I conjure Modern Times now, I keep picturing the orange end cap I used for my now-deceased iPod Shuffle, the one that was frozen in time for over a year with a playlist from the summer of 2006: The Silver Jews and Sparklehorse's last offerings, Band of Horses and Bloc Party's debut albums, and the Danielson LP I kept skipping through because it got on my nerves. As much great music as I had on that playlist, however, it's Modern Times I associate with the device, because for some inexplicable reason it would always start playing in the middle of that record. This is how I came to realize that I loved it, for I would almost always listen to several songs before painstakingly seeking out the album I wanted to hear.
I ended up writing a review for Tikkun in which I turned this fragment inside out, focusing most of my attention on the Melvins, who are mentioned in passing here, but using the example of Bob Dylan to prove my central point: "The success of Bob Dylan’s Modern Times testifies not to the renewed vitality of the traditional music industry, but to the fact that there will never be another Bob Dylan." As I sit here contemplating Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, the Dylan-inspired deconstruction of the biopic genre, I'm moved to second my own motion. But I'll also add that there will never be another iPod Shuffle like my malfunctioning one with the orange end cap.