End Times With Bob

A review of Dylan's Modern Times

The year 1976 in the United States might as well have been a million years ago to the average BustedHalo reader. The nation celebrated its bicentennial. Gerald Ford lost the presidency to Jimmy Carter. Rocky ruled the big screen, while “Charlie’s Angels” made its debut on television, as did “The Muppet Show.” And with Desire, Bob Dylan had the final number one album of his career.

Until now.

Don’t look back, because Dylan topped the Billboard charts again last week with Modern Times, his 31st studio album. Dylan has garnered almost universal kudos in the music press for his latest work, and even the one bit of controversy—the discovery that he had borrowed liberally from the verses of Confederate poet Henry Timrod—ultimately redounded to Dylan’s credit, for who but a genius plagiarizes from an obscure Civil War poet? Now well into his seventh decade of life, Dylan has himself become America’s de facto poet laureate, exploring quintessentially American themes and mastering that quintessentially American characteristic: reinvention.

From The Country To The City

Rolling Stone gave the album five stars, calling it “his third straight masterwork” that “retraces the American journey from the country to the city.”

It’s more than that, of course, but one has to be looking. Modern Times is also Dylan’s most explicitly Christian work since the early 1980s, both in its lyrical allusions and in its narrative arc, moving steadily if circuitously towards a dramatic affirmation of the power of redemption to save the narrator (and the nation) from the dangers of a brimstone-filled apocalypse.

It doesn’t sound like the stridently evangelical albums of Dylan’s confessional years, and much has changed for the man and his music, but Modern Times ultimately plays as an extended and poignant meditation on the power of love and redemption in a world gone wrong.

Without question, the lyrics of Modern Times lack much of the complexity of wordplay present throughout Dylan’s lifetime of work that encouraged generations of fans to treat his songs as poetry fit for the printed page.

“It doesn’t sound
like the stridently evangelical albums of Dylan’s confessional years, and much has changed for the man and his music, but Modern Times ultimately plays as an extended and poignant meditation on the power of love and redemption in a world gone wrong.”

class=”text11″ style=”margin-top: 0; margin-bottom: 0;”>The Old, Weird America

Similarly, many of the literary influences of his younger days have been largely supplanted by the musical traditions of what Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America,” the typically American music of folk, blues, rockabilly, country, gospel spirituals, and more that also provided the backdrop for his 2001 opus Love And Theft. In that sense, Muddy Waters and Leadbelly are the avatars of Modern Times, rather than Rimbaud or Chekhov or the American beat poets.

And yet the stark simplicity of many of these verses make a powerful point: this is an album meant to be heard, not quoted in high school yearbooks or cannibalized for graduate student theses. Internal rhymes, cheap puns, and non sequiturs galore adorn and sometimes obfuscate Dylan’s typically apocalyptic sensibilities, turning even ruminations on mortality and hellfire into catchy, memorable songs. “I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth,” Dylan sings on “Thunder On The Mountain,” the bluesy first track of Modern Times, and the verse serves as a convenient metaphor for where this notorious old musical polymath draws his inspiration these days: from the songs and traditions of the American soil, particularly where that soil is swampy.

Already Confessed

The lyrics also bring us back to the Christian themes Modern Times raises; and was I wrong to think that it sometimes even sounds, well, Catholic?! This album is full of references to Catholic churches, to the taking of religious vows, to repentant narrators who hear voices “from some familiar shrine” and have “already confessed—no need to confess again.”

One must exercise caution in such flights of fancy, of course; every time Dylan reemerges into the public eye, fans sift through his every word looking for the secret messages that we are sure must absolutely be there and almost never are, in any coherent way. The practice of projecting images of ourselves onto Dylan is nothing new but the results can still be surprising. Case in point, a conservative journal recently proof-texted Dylan’s songs and interviews, only to discover, mirabile dictu, that Bob Dylan is actually a right-wing ideologue who hates liberals.

Indeed. With that warning in mind, one would be hard-pressed to miss the powerful Christian influence everywhere in Modern Times. His famous penchant for borrowing Scripture is at its strongest here, and the normal allusions to Biblical verses are all present (“I’ve been conjuring up all these long dead souls from their crumblin’ tombs”). One also finds explicit Christological references: a “crown of thorns,” “sweating blood,” and a man mocked and insulted when dragged before a judge. Nor are these allusions used solely as rhetorical devices, but seem subtly crucial to the development of one of Dylan’s favorite thematic tensions throughout his career, the inevitability of fiery apocalypse versus the hope of resurrection and redemption.

Ain’t Walkin

This constant theme comes to a stirring climax on the album’s final song, the slow and ruminative “Ain’t Walkin”:

As I walked out in the mystic garden/
On a hot summer day, a hot summer lawn/
Excuse me, ma’am, I beg your pardon/
There’s no one here, the gardener is gone.

Mary Magdalene; the gardener; the unexpected absence: a lyrical retelling of the resurrection of Christ in Chapter 20 of the Gospel of John. The triumph of life over death, of redemption over sin. After ten songs of spiritual quest admixed with lovers, scoundrels, scandals and loss, the penultimate stanza brings the album back home. In the final lines of “Ain’t Walkin,” the final lines of the album as well, Dylan hints at the narrator’s perspective on it all, on love and redemption and suffering and apocalypse:

Heart burnin’, still yearnin’/
In the last outback at the world’s end.