Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dylan Album Project: Modern Times

Modern Times (2006)

In the grand cultural quilt that makes up “Love and Theft,” Dylan had several favorite sources he drew from – Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the canon of corny jokes and Junichi Saga’s Confessions of a Yakuza probably produced at least three dozen lines for the album when added together. Dylan used a similar technique on Modern Times, and again had favorite sources – the works of poet laureate of the Confederacy Henry Timrod and the letters of Henry Rollins among them. The Bible was also more used on Modern Times than on “Love and Theft. The difference mostly lies in the extent to which he uses pastiche.

The best songs on this album, which takes its name from a Charlie Chaplin film, are better than anything on “Love and Theft,” but the album as a whole isn’t. The most interesting songs are the three slower songs on the last half of the album – “Workingman’s Blues #2,” “Nettie Moore” and “Ain’t Talkin’.” These songs take cultural reference points – a Merle Haggard song, an old folk tune, and a conflation of the Garden of Eden with Revelation – and do something new with them. The melodies seem to be original. Some of the other interesting songs use Biblical allusion to great effect. “Thunder On the Mountain” is named for the passage where Moses is given the law, and several allusions to Exodus appear in this song, but so does Alicia Keys, and the whole thing is plastered against a great rockabilly beat. I’m also fond of “Spirit On the Water.” The melody sounds stolen, but I can’t say from where. It opens by describing the spirit as “the darkness on the face of the deep,” which also opens Genesis. It is a love song to this spirit, but a strained love song, and the spirit is God. The speaker in the song is Cain (“I can’t go back to paradise no more; I killed a man back there.”). This opens up several possibilities.

There are a couple songs based on other songs that manage to be at least a bit original, and then there are the three irredeemable sins of the album – “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” “Someday Baby,” and “The Levee’s Gonna Break.” Dylan stole these songs from Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sleepy John Estes and Joe McCoy & Memphis Minnie. Dylan copied these songs musically – often to the keys, the arrangements, and even the solos – and his band performs them wonderfully, but they aren’t his (even though he is listed as author). A few lyrics are changed here and there – especially in “Someday Baby” (though the lyrics in the refrain remain the same) – but they are mostly the same as well. In “Love and Theft,” Dylan was also stealing melodies and song titles, but he was mixing them in interesting ways that were surprising and that created juxtaposition. He wasn’t writing, necessarily, but he was creating something new. In these songs he isn’t, and that is where this album’s weaknesses lie. I can go back and listen to my original recordings and be just as pleased, probably more so, than by listening to these covers that are soured by being called originals.

Best song: Nettie Moore – In the fantastic Bob Dylan In America, Sean Wilentz explains how this song work: Dylan is writing in couplets, pairing a line taken from an old American folk tune, then pairing it with a line of contemporary parlance. This means we get great lines like “Lost John sitting on a railroad track…. something’s out of whack.” The song’s title, and part of the refrain, is adapted by the antewar social song “Gentle Nettie Moore.” The rest follows along in the pattern Wilentz describes, and to great effect.

Worst song: Someday Baby – I actually dislike “When the Levee’s Gonna Break” a bit more, but this song pales in comparison to what it could have been. I think Dylan realizes that, which is probably why it is the only song from Modern Times he has yet to play live. Still, the song has proven popular despite my misgivings. Based on its appearance in an iTunes commercial, the song briefly climbed to #95 on the Hot 100 Singles, Dylan’s first appearance on that chart since 1985.

Best outtake: Someday Baby – This outtake was one of the great revelations on Tell Tale Signs, the anthology of 1989-2006 odds’n’ends that Columbia put out in 2008. It is a unique melody, almost certainly Dylan’s, and has many different lyrics that are superior to what ended up on the album. If Dylan had released this and done similar things with the album’s other copied songs, it would have been a much stronger album indeed.

Live Version: Thunder On the Mountain – Dylan was right to give this song to rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. It is a great party tune that is rollicking and unruly with a tight groove. It is an easy crowd please with the crunchy guitars, which probably explains why it has been the most performed, and best performed, song from Modern Times.

Rhymes: bitches/orphanages (“Thunder On the Mountain”); horse/forced; dime/crime; clung/tongue (2-4 from “Workingman’s Blues #2”); berserk/paperwork (“Nettie Moore”)

Images: “I’m sweating blood” (“Spirit On the Water”); “got my mind tied up in knots” (“Someday Baby”); “a greasy trail” (“Nettie Moore”); “the wounded flowers were dangling from the vine” “a toothache in my heel” (4-5 from “Ain’t Talkin’”)

Axioms: “I’m gonna raise me an army of some tough sons of bitches; I’m recruitin’ my army from the orphanages;” “I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows” (“Thunder On the Mountain”); “the buying power of the proletariat’s gone down” (“Workingman’s Blues #2”); “something’s out of whack;” “they say whiskey’ll kill you, but I don’t think it will” (“Nettie Moore”); “I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned” (“Ain’t Talkin’”)

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