January 30, 2007

Modern Times

Bob Dylan's Modern Times album has been a delight to listen to in the last five months. A friend asked me what I thought of it, so I'll self-plagiarize in the service of getting a semi-interesting post up.

There's a level of knowing irony and historical sense throughout the album. It's called Modern Times, but most of the cultural references (other than to Alicia Keys) are to events quite distant to most people, certainly a lot of them before Bob's time. The other irony, in the day of iTunes and the move away from the album, is that it's an album, not a CD-length collection of songs. This is interesting, as Dylan has been quite deliberate in adapting to new media over the years (XM radio, now iTunes), in a way that makes me think he keeps up with what's happening and thinks about it. This is not to say he's taken on board every musical innovation in the last 45 years, ever seen a good Dylan music video? Not so much, other than "Series of Dreams," and even that is a great song without the video. Perhaps the video is over-rated because expectations for Dylan videos are so low.

Anyway, back to this being an album. More than Time out of Mind and Love and Theft, Modern Times really does benefit from being being listened to in the order on the CD. But if the move away from albums is post-modern, then perhaps the album format is modern. In any case, I think that by making an album qua album, Dylan has done something to stop the slide towards popular music sliding into a 3-7 minute commercial radio/download format. While I think digital distribution of music will probably lead towards some artists doing longer songs (since there's now a semi-viable way to make money off songs that don't fit into commercial radio time slots), the inevitable tendency of selling music in single songs will be that fewer artists will do albums that make coherent sense as albums. On the other hand, we may well be spared some of the dreaded marginal songs that are not of the same quality as the other pieces, but have to be put on the CD to meet audience or marketing expectations of what constitutes an album. The bottom line is that the album form of inter-related songs is a distinct form in popular music. Done well it's great. It would be a shame to lose it from the culture. Modern Times is a good advertisement for the genre.

The other aspect that's knowingly ironic is that a lot of the songs have a very direct lineage to other older material. Is that modern? I've always thought that one of the defining characteristics of modernity (everything changed in December 1910) was at least the cultivated appearance of rejecting the past, and making everything out to be New and Exciting. Emphasize Modernity by writing in Somewhat Random Capital Letters because type setting bold is more expensive etc etc ... Modern Times doesn't do that. It's very consciously historical.

I do think that there is something new and distinctive in what Dylan's doing with the old blues influence on his work. There's a richness to the sound, due to his good backing band, that some blues lacks. For a man whose contribution to musical history will primarily be the poetry of his lyrics, his re-acquisition of a good band at this late stage of his career adds something to his legacy. Between Blood and the Tracks and Time Out of Mind the backing music for Dylan's work was pretty poor (though Under the Red Sky, note the influence of Daniel Lanois, is a noteworthy exception).

All in all, an album well worth an historian's time.

Posted by eroberts at January 30, 2007 1:43 PM