After the apocalyptic thunder subsides, a soft, jazzy shuffle takes us back to the beginning of all things:


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s Spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  (Genesis 1:1)

The voice is the tender whisper of an ageing crooner. The music rolls in a steady tempo, with deep, subdued double bass, delicate brushes on the drums, gently tinkling piano and tasteful snatches of violin and guitar.  As he lures us into the song, it is as if the singer’s spirit is indeed hovering over on the surface of the primordial ocean, gliding in air in the moment before creation. His heart, it seems, is light.  He is in love, besotted with some young Princess or other. He can hardly sleep. …You got a face that begs for love… he coos. Yet it’s clearly him who’s doing the begging. He trembles with anticipation as he looks forward to the moment of a great awakening.  He is ready to confess his deep devotion, to express his humility and to give thanks for the sheer privilege of being allowed merely to stand in the presence of his beloved. Hers is the spirit that moves upon the face of the water. His is the darkness. He is down on his knees now, as if in prayer. And he is ready to confess…

Of course, he doesn’t have a hope in hell with her. The Princess will wrap him round her little finger.  Yet he seems to revel in every moment. He wants us to believe that he …can’t explain/the sources of this hidden pain… But we know better. He takes on the traditional role of the self-effacing, martyred lover: …If I can’t have you… he breathes … I’ll throw my love into the deep blue sea… He wants to allow us to share in his heartbreak, to experience the bittersweet taste of his tragic disappointment. Like a true romantic fool he tells her …life without you/doesn’t mean a thing to me…  But we can only begin to pity him as the evidence accumulates that she is using him: …You do good all day/You do wrong all night…  We can almost see the tears of joy, mingled with traces of his ‘hidden pain’. The lines …When you’re with me/I’m a thousand times happier than I could say… are delivered with cute nonchalance, as is the following …What does it matter/What price I pay?…  Although the singer may wish to dismiss his own suffering, trying to make us believe that just spending some time in her presence makes the humiliation he must face bearable, but the lightness of his tone betrays him.

Up to this point, the language of the song is a kind of understated plainspeak. But now the singer begins to throw out more imagistic phrases that take us into more mysterious realms. Much of MODERN TIMES is steeped in the nuances of the language of the blues, with its sly sexual innuendos. Here the singer implores his love to …put some sugar in my bowl/I feel like lying down… The plea is a straightforward come-on but the cool, resigned delivery of the lines conjures up a world-weariness that suggests that a ‘lie down’ is really all he needs. Certainly, it’s all he’s likely to get. The next lines are the most remarkable and moving in the song, as the singer’s self-effacement has him picturing himself fading away, the substance of his body becoming like mist and shadow. …I’m as pale as a ghost…  he sighs …holding a blossom on a stem….  Not a ‘flower’, mind. What he offers her is something incomplete, faded, barely even visible. Though he tells her that he …can’t believe these things could ever fade from your mind… we can be pretty sure that they will. His pleas become increasingly hopeless. He tells her he will accept any humiliation to be with her, and begins to dream of a kind of eternal union which might extend even beyond the grave. Yet the strange confession in the penultimate verse, that he cannot join her in ‘paradise’ because …I killed a man back there…  (With its odd echo of Johnny Cash’s line in Folsom Prison Blues: …I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die…) suggests that he considers himself – as a miserable sinner – unworthy of her. He ends jauntily, suggesting that, even without this ‘paradisiacal’ union, they could still …have a whomping’ good time… together. But Paradise has been lost. Together they could have had their own moment of creation, with her spirit moving over his ‘dark waters’ to create a flash of blinding, inspirational light. However, it is not to be.

The songs on MODERN TIMES are, like so many of the great blues songs, sung by what the literati like to call ‘unreliable narrators’. We have to ‘read through the lines’ of what they so convincingly profess to see what is really going on. As with songs like Moonlight and Bye and Bye on LOVE AND THEFT, Dylan’s adoption of the ‘easy crooning’ style in Spirit on the Water (and later on in the even more arch Beyond the Horizon) is a kind of subterfuge. He appears to be embracing the sentimental style of 30s crooners like Bing Crosby in order to cast himself in the role of an ageing roué. Like the ‘Southern Gentleman’ look he has appropriated for his live performances, this is another ‘Dylan mask’, a kind of self-mocking way of presenting himself to his public in his mid-60s. In his youth Dylan used the form of the ‘love song’ to present often harshly realistic pictures of imperfect relationships – songs like Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, Mama You Been On My Mind, One Too Many Mornings, All I Really Want To Do, I Don’t Believe You and (most brutally) It Ain’t Me, Babe all explicitly rejected the sentimental conventions of the form in favour of ‘authentic’ truthfulness. Later, in his ‘country’ period – in I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, Lay Lady Lay, I Threw It All Away and If Not For You – he appeared to embrace the possibility of ‘true love’ , even if his rather deliberate use of romantic cliché (…Love is all there is/It makes the world go round…) seemed somewhat guardedly ironic. By the mid ‘70s, with the domestic idyll of his Woodstock days now a shattered dream, he delved deep inside him to produce the emotionally gut-wrenching song-cycle BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which depicted in graphic detail the depths of pain which love could bring. …I’m going out of my mind… the singer in You’re A Big Girl Now tells us …with a pain that stops and starts/like a corkscrew to my heart/every since we been apart…  From there on, as his personal despair found refuge in faith, his love songs become increasingly ‘spiritual’. Oh Sister from DESIRE was a kind of love song to the spirit of womanhood itself. I Believe in You from SLOW TRAIN COMING was apparently addressed both to a woman and to God, as was To Make You Feel My Love from Time Out Of Mind, another album of disillusioned love songs. By then, Dylan’s faith in any notion of personal ‘salvation’ had become shot to pieces. When once he declared that all he needed was a Shot of Love, now he was thoroughly Love Sick. The album’s most moving track, Standing in the Doorway, plumbs emotional depths as deep as any on BLOOD ON THE TRACKS. On the album’s delightfully deadpan closer Highlands Dylan’s description of his encounter with a young waitress who mocks him mercilessly shuffles a kind of spiritual emptiness with a strange new kind of ‘awakening’. From here on Dylan – free from his demons, liberated by the distance his age has given him – is free to be playfully creative again. …I’ve got new eyes… he declares …Everything looks far away…

And so, on LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES Dylan feels free to play with the form of the love song again. On LOVE AND THEFT’s Mississippi he uses the geography of America as a kind of metaphor for a failed relationship. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the other way round. In the epochal Sugar Baby he appears to be bidding a cracked farewell to love itself: … You spent years without me.. Might as well keep going now … Now, on MODERN TIMES – an album which, in its own way, is as preoccupied with love as TIME OUT OF MIND, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS or NASHVILLE SKYLINE, he steps behind a series of disguises. He becomes a kind of ‘ghostly’ figure in the background of the songs’ shifting personas. Spirit on the Water epitomises this new approach. The flower of his youth may have faded but he is still holding that fragile blossom on a stem, dreaming of eternal bliss, with a fair measure of lust thrown in for good measure. The song seems to literally float past us and Dylan brings a new assurance and confidence to his use of the conventions of the ‘romantic’ song. Behind each sighing gasp of romantic despair there is a touch of ironic lightness, a sense that whatever tearful protestations he may be presenting us with, the singer has in reality been liberated from the ‘hidden pain’ that love brings. It is hard not to read the final lines as a message to his audience that he’s not ‘over the hill’ just yet.

But with Dylan, as ever, little is what it seems at first. In many ways the playful spirit of MODERN TIMES harks back to Dylan’s mid-60s masterpiece BLONDE ON BLONDE, a series of sly, trickily worded songs which (on the surface) were each addressed to different women, from the tragic lovechild of Just Like A Woman to the girl to whom he was Pledging My Time, to the shifting eternal female-symbol of Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands. Hovering behind them all is the figure of Johanna, the mysteriously fading …ghost of electricity… All these women are, on one level, aspects of B.O.B. himself. Dylan uses the forms of the ‘female principle’ – the ‘visions’ which ‘conquer his mind’ to reflect on both universal and personal dilemmas and to counter pose symbolic elemental forces within himself. Like the ubiquitous Johanna, the actual subject of Spirit On The Water is entirely absent from the song. She is not a ‘real woman’ but a symbol of creativity itself, a ‘Johanna’ for ‘Modern Times’. The song is a kind of address to his own inner creative spirit, without which life ‘doesn’t mean a thing’. Of course, there is a ‘price to pay’ for such devotion – the individual who surrenders his life to creativity can become like a fading ghost (just like Johanna again). But here, just as he once luxuriated in the fabulous image of the ‘ghost of electricity’, Dylan pictures himself as a ghost, the ghost of one who has surrendered all his emotional substance to the creative process. And he revels in the freedom his new role brings – unencumbered by physical form he can dance lightly – walking, perhaps on water – yet freed from desperate lust, freed from the agony of spiritual searching. It has been a long, tortuous journey – many times he has laboured in the slough of despond, trying to convince himself he’d ‘found Jesus’, evoking the spirit of a dead bluesman on the discarded Blind Willie McTell, then caught in the despair of ‘inspiration fatigue’ of the late ‘80s where he thought he’d have to quit because the ‘spirit’ of creativity was no longer with him. He has had to reach back, not only into a poetic-mythical pre-war ‘weird America’ and the ‘roots’ of the blues but also into the deepest depths of his soul. Now, having grown into a new persona – the ghostly figure, perhaps of some Civil War poet that you might have in some old painting on your mantelpiece – he can again be as playful as he was in his halcyon days when the spirit would descend upon him and visionary songs would pour out of him as if they were already written, dictated to him by ‘the powers above’. Thus Spirit On The Water is a kind of autobiographical song, a manifesto for the album, and perhaps for the rest of Dylan’s career. With the calmness of experience, the wisdom of age, he has finally learned – or to be more precise, re-learned – a way in which the spirit of creativity can be allowed to move through him so that he can speak the words that bring him – and us – into the light. He was so much older then… he’s younger than that now…

Part Three of ‘MODERN TIMES TRACK BY TRACK’ should follow some time next week.



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Bob Dylan’s Modern Times Track By Track

MODERN TIMES TRACK BY TRACK 1) Thunder On The Mountain


‘Everybody got to wonder
What’s the matter with this cruel world today’

MODERN TIMES begins, as it ends, in an apocalyptic landscape.  The earth itself is in tumult.  Volcanoes, hurricanes and whirlwinds scour the land. The power is cut. It’s like Hell’s Kitchen. Everything is broken. Hot stuff everywhere. For the singer, the writing is on the wall.  He’s already offered up some prayers. Now he has to clear out of town fast.

Soon it will be morning. He grabs his trombone and blows. He’s driving north, his eyes blinded by tears. Rain lashes the windscreen. He grabs the steering wheel in fury. The images almost overwhelm him. A beautiful face flashes in front of his eyes. A vision of perfection. He licks his lips around the name…. A young singer. Alicia KEYS…. perhaps she will be the key, his salvation. He keeps his eyes open for her all through Tennessee. He will devote himself to her. He wants a REAL GOOD woman who will obey him. And he will find her. He will never betray her, even when he stands before God. Now the sun is shining, almost blinding him. ….

But he doesn’t need a map. He already knows where he’s going. He begins to fantasise. He will raise himself an army. The toughest sons of bitches. They will ravage the countryside. And God, of course is on his side.

A conversation is going on in his head. Between a man and a woman. Maybe it’s still Alicia, maybe not. Maybe it’s a demon, talking to an angel. God conversing with the Devil.  And after all, you gotta serve somebody…

His  fantasies become lascivious. He’s got the porkchops, she got the pie. Ha ha ha. Slaver slaver, drool drool…. But she won’t play ball. She cries SHAME on his wickedness. SHAME on his evil schemes.

The elements coverwhelm him. The demon takes the form of a whirlwind bearing down on him. Something bad’s gonna happen. He panics. Like everyone else, he wants to leave the country. Maybe if he keeps driving he’ll reach Canada. Then he can become a farmer. He’ll renounce the demon. Put down his pitchfork. Lay down his hammer. Finally he hears her pitiless voice, telling him he ought to take pity on himself. 

It doesn’t sound as if his sins are going to be redeemed.

MODERN TIMES is, as a number of commentators have already commented, an ironic title. Dylan’s new album is couched in the musical and lyrical language of the pre-war blues, Western swing and crooning styles. Like an old-time musical entertainer, he switches between styles smoothly. You can almost see him up there, twirling his cane, a glint in his eye. There is a reference, if you like, to Chaplin’s balletic masterpiece of the same name, the last gasp of the great poetic art of silent movies. Chaplin’s film railed against modern styles and modern life, showing technology dwarfing the scale of humanity. And Chaplin’s film was made in the late 30s, as the world moved inexorably, stupidly, lumbering towards a great apocalyptic cataclysm. In his next film Chaplin became Hitler himself. Dicing with the Devil.  And so it is with Dylan’s new album, which could be subtitled ‘A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’… Great title, but it’s been used before. Like Chaplin, Dylan sees the only response to the coming cataclysm in mocking humour.

Dylan’s last album, LOVE AND THEFT, was released – spookily – on September 11th 2001. Already the portents were present. High Water flooded the earth. In ‘Tweedle Dee And Tweedle Dum’ Dylan wrote, in six short words, the best description of war ever: ‘Two Big Bags Of Dead Men’s Bones’. In the years since its release, war and paranoia have increased around us daily. Those big bags have overflowed. And in Washington, where in THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN the ladies are ‘scrambling to get out of town’, America’s leaders kneel and pray. Our own lovely Tony Blair kneels with Bush to be reassured that God is on their side. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

Nothing fires Dylan up more than hypocrisy, especially in those early protest songs (‘Even Jesus would never forgive what you do!’- Masters of War) and again in the songs of his so-called ‘born again’ period. Time and time again he warns us that the Hard Rain is falling. The Hard Rain, he tells us, is LIES. And now, on MODERN TIMES, he reaches back into the soul of America, of the modern world. Often, as with LOVE AND THEFT, we are in the 1920s. At other times we go further back, to the American Civil War. On stage Dylan dresses like a Confederate dandy, a riverboat gambler out of Huckleberry Finn. In Chronicles he tells us how relevant the Civil War is to the condition of America today. Dylan has said that he wants his songs to STOP TIME. The Times, he once sang, Are A-Changin’. When he sings that song now it’s a slow lament, a recognition of universal processes. In LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES he takes us a trip on a kind of magic swirling time machine. One moment we’re in the 1930s, next moment we’re meeting Alicia Keys or getting ready for a ‘bootie call’. We’re seeing the present through a prism of the past. Looks like tomorrow is coming on fast, he sang in SILVIO, from his unlamented late 80s low point DOWN IN THE GROOVE. And he kept singing that song. Seen better days, he would drawl, but who has not…

THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN has one of the greatest openings to any Dylan album. Appropriately, there is a roll of drums. A guitarist picks out a blues groove. There is a pause, just for a millisecond, so we can draw breath. Then the whole band kicks in. Of course, we’ve heard the tune before. It’s the speeded up blues lick that Chuck Berry used for JOHNNY B. GOODE, his apocryphal tale about a boy with a guitar who heads for the big city. Chuck liked the tune so much he used it on a lot of his other records. Its unlikely he invented it, though. Nearly all of the blues is handed down through time from God knows where. On MODERN TIMES Dylan steals liberally, both musically and lyrically, from many sources, just like all the great bluesmen did. The band plays it cool. They are tight, unfussy. The relative flashiness of guitarists like Charlie Sexton and Larry Campbell is gone. These guys – Kimball, Freeman, Herron, Garnier, Recile – are Men In Grey – they play together like they’ve been doing it nearly every night for a year (which of course they have). The groove they set up is relaxed and smoothy, allowing Bob’s vocal variations to make the song flow. And what a voice he has now. You can hear it in the gigs he’s been playing in 2006. The characteristic Dyan rasp is still there, but now it’s modulated by a deceptive sweetness of tone, achieved by Bob’s clandestine study of the crooners of the 30s and 40s. In his early years he sang in a deliberately alienating nasal drawl. He forced you to listen to the words. Made you sit in your seat and wouldn’t let you dance. Now you can dance to all Bob’s music. Finally he has achieved his ambition, as stated in his callow youth, to ‘carry himself like Big Joe Williams’.

For the first few verses, he is as cool and detached as his musicians. Occasionally the voice threatens to break, as when he pronounces ‘waaall’ in the third verse. He even sounds pretty cool about Alicia, innocently baffled by her presence in the song. There is a musical break, allowing the band to stretch out. When he sings ‘Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day’ he sounds quite calm, self-assured. But when he comes to ‘I want some real good woman to do just what I say’ he wobbles a little.

The next musical break steps the tempo up a little. He sounds hopeful, cheerful even, belying the tension in the words, his voice lifting at the ends of lines…  ‘some sweet day I’ll stand before my KING….’ he lilts. Then, as he threatens to raise an army and stages his lustful conversation, his voice becomes rougher, more caustic. In the final section he sounds rueful, still with that glint of humility in his voice until the music dissolves in a classic blues crescendo, finally returning us to the guitar flourish it began with.

THUNDER ON THE MOUNTAIN is a moral drama. Or a moral maze. The narrator seems  to be one who has few moral boundaries. It’s with great relish that he declares, in the song’s most audacious extrapolation of traditional blues imagery ‘I’VE SUCKED THE MILK OUT OF A THOUSAND COWS!’. In the blues such imagery is usually related to a kind of frustrated sexuality, as in Robert Johnson’s MILK COW BLUES (covered by the young Elvis and the young Dylan). But here we feel that the narrator has sucked the lifeblood out of Mother Earth herself. The singer may have said his religious vows, but he seems like a potential mass murderer. All around him the Earth seems to be erupting in chaos. But only the voice of the female figure he is pursuing seems to bring him down to earth. In the end he promises to lay his ‘pitchfork’ and his ‘hammer’ down for her, but there is no escape, in this chaotic landscape, for the confusion he has wrought. The last words are pure acid: ‘For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself!’. There seems little chance that he will.