In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 film The Dreamers, it’s May 1968 in Paris. Everything is up for grabs, on the verge of redefinition, and a song comes on the soundtrack that would have been familiar to young people anywhere in 1968, Bob Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately.” It hits with the freshness of something you’re hearing for the first time, something that makes you wonder whether anything could ever sound as good, and at that moment movie and song work together to collapse the distance between 1968 and now.
SILVER FOX: “I got the pork chops/She got the pie/She ain’t no angel/And neither am I,” a salacious Dylan intones playfully on Modern Times.
On Dylan’s Modern Times (Columbia), the distance that’s collapsed is considerably wider. Dylan is going back to a period he loves. That period happens to be one before he was born, but what the hell?
“To find the modern, you have to go back to the past,” says Greil Marcus in his new The Shape of Things To Come: Prophecy and the American Voice. Given the easy blues, country swing, and ’30s-style crooning that make up the 10 songs on Modern Times, you could take the title as ironic. It’s anything but. The album is called Modern Times because, for Dylan, this music hasn’t aged. Just as in The Dreamers “Queen Jane Approximately” sounds as if nothing had touched it in the past 40 years, so Dylan plays the songs here as if the past 70 years had produced nothing that touches him more than country swing or gently rolling blues, or gently rollicking blues, for that matter.
It’s a deceptively relaxed album. Mine isn’t the first review to cite the debt that the vocals on “Spirit on the Water” and “Beyond the Horizon” owe to Dylan’s idol, Bing Crosby. Dylan sings them in the offhand manner Crosby did; it could seem a throwaway until you realize that what he’s expressing is a profound acceptance of the chaos that love has made of his existence. “Spirit on the Water” goes on for more than seven minutes with a gently strummed guitar riff and brushstrokes on the drums, and you settle into the sound — until Dylan brings you up short. “Wanna be with you in paradise,” he sings, “and it seems so unfair/I can’t go to paradise no more/I killed a man back there,” and with that the tossed-off vocal becomes the earthly grace that’s achieved through tribulation.
Caught up in the sound of Modern Times, you could also miss the moment where an Old Testament prophet inhabits the voice of the blues singer (“Sooner or later, you too shall burn”), or a line bites as hard as anything in “Positively 4th Street” (“I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams”). But Dylan and his band — Tony Garnier, George C. Receli, Stu Kimball, Denny Freeman, and Donny Herron — are caught up in the sound too. Dylan has often seemed to sing on top of the music, to hover above it, using it like a natural force to bolster his declamations. In the albums he’s made since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, he’s inside the music, wanting the groove to say as much as the lyrics.