Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Still Blowin'


Modern Times

Yep, rock's greatest songwriter

The third in a simultaneously startling and backward-looking series Dylan began in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, Modern Times is neither as existentially bleak as that piece of fabricated folklore nor as waggish and vivacious as 2001's "Love and Theft." Instead it radiates the observant calm of old masters who have seen enough life to be ready for anything--Yeats, Matisse, Sonny Rollins. This is a music-first record that leavens blues shuffles with the moderate tempos and politely jazzy beat favored by Dylan hero Bing Crosby in the early '30s. Nice though it would be for the title to indicate "current events," the likely reference is Charlie Chaplin's 1936 movie masterpiece. In both, a legendary entertainer does what he wants because nobody can stop him, and the world is better for it.

At 65, Dylan is writing modern poetry only insofar as that tradition can encompass song lyrics. Celebrating American vernacular from folk to Tin Pan Alley, he drops wonderful lines galore. Try "I got the pork chops, she got the pie." Or, "I can't go back to paradise; I killed a man there." And sneaking in "The buying power of the proletariat's gone down" must have given him a kick. But what really gets Dylan off these days is jumping the beat by rushing the first line of the opening track's second stanza--which happens to be "I was thinking about Alicia Keys." Or turning Slim Harpo's "Hip Shake" into "Someday Baby." Or Hawaiianizing "Beyond the Horizon." Or the descending 16-note, yes, hook that runs through "Spirit on the Water." Though it belongs on a piano, it's usually stated on acoustic guitar and then taken up by shifting combinations of standup bass and Dylan's touring band. Sometimes it fades out early, but it always comes back, and you want it to--for all eight minutes of the song.

Blender, Sept. 2006