Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Elder Statesman

At the moment, we are immersed in All Things Dylan. Rock’s elder statesman is featured in dozens of magazines and newspapers, with critics gushing over his latest release, Modern Times. We have him on the “cover of the Rolling Stone” giving a great, candid interview, plugging iTunes and his music on our TVs, and a upcoming Broadway musical featuring his music. Did I mention Modern Times is the #1 album in the country, surpassing Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera, all with virtually no radio support? His last #1 was thirty years ago, before most of the acts on the charts today were born. Within the last year or so, we’ve also been treated to the Scorsese directed rock-doc, a best selling memoir, and a satellite radio show.

What does it mean when an artist of Dylan’s magnitude pervades so much of our culture? To me, it means we are extremely fortunate, and we should enjoy it while we can. The hard core Dylanophiles may wince at seeing Bob hawking Victoria’s Secret and iTunes, but Bob is not the mysterious enigma that he would have us believe. Dylan has never claimed indifference to commercial success and popularity, and I think his output would decrease or even cease if the public stopped paying attention. After four decades in the music business Dylan knows a bit about marketing, and he could easily be riding the oldies circuit into the sunset, playing Blowing in the Wind night after night in packed arenas. Instead, he’s out there in the trenches, playing smaller venues where he can be scrutinized up close by the most discerning fans in music. But, he’s got enough savvy to put Scarlet Johansson in the video, and tour with opening acts like Foo Fighters and the Raconteurs. He’s still trying to sell records and find new audiences, and what’s wrong with that?

So what about Modern Times? Every review I’ve read has been of the 5-star variety, and to the casual observer it probably appears that no music critic has the balls to post a negative review. The truth is, Modern Times is an amazing record. It’s a seamless blend of American music’s primordial soup; blues, folk, rock and roll, vaudeville, and Dylan’s own imitable style, done with such grace and aplomb that it never comes across as a cop-out. These are not lazy retreads of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry; this is music that is entwined in Dylan’s musical DNA, and what comes out is so natural that with each listen it gets better. It feels honest; this is a 65-year old man making music, and it is somehow relates to our own lives as much as his own. The songs are mesmerizing, clocking in at 6-7 minutes in length, yet they are gone in an instant, and you want to hear them over again. Like his previous records, there is a underying sense of melancholy that runs throughout, but with bursts of venom interspersed.

Dylan's voice is an acquired taste. It always has been, but the growling rasp that surfaced years ago really took some time to accept. It has mellowed though, and over the last three albums he has found song structures and phrasing that suit his current voice. Bob's voice ranges from crooner to growling bluesman without skipping a beat. His voice is unbelieveably expressive and now as potent an instrument as his poetry. About the only downside to Modern Times is the sound, to which Dylan has already expressed his displeasure for in the Rolling Stone interview. This is music that should sound raw and alive, but instead it sounds flat and too polished.

Judge for yourself. Here's Bob crooning When the Deal Goes Down from the album. To hear the other gems on this record you'll need to go out and buy it. While you're at it, if you don’t own Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001), go out and buy those too. And then, go see him on tour this fall, while you still can.



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