Friday, January 19, 2007

Bob Dylan: Still awesome after all these years

Well, count me in the field with those who think Bob Dylan's Modern Times was one of the best albums to come out in 2006.

This is kind of surprising to me on a couple of levels. First, I have always appreciated Bob Dylan as a poet and American icon, but I never really got the cult adoration that led people to trade bootlegs and devour every recorded moment of the man's voice. That's a fancy way of saying I understood it logically, but I didn't really feel it. Second, I was a little skeptical that a 65-year-old icon of the admittedly-old-fashioned genre of folk music could still be relevant in today's music market. And thirdly, I thought Dylan's voice was shot - I mistakenly wondered who would want to listen to a former legend croaking through ten tracks on a new album?

I could not have been more wrong. From the moment Modern Times came through the headphones, I realized Dylan is not only relevant, he is trailblazing. This album should be the I Ching for any band that incorporates folk, blues or roots music in their repertoire. Thom Jurek at the All Music Guide said it best:

"Dylan is a folk musician; he uses American folk forms such as blues, rock, gospel, and R&B as well as lyrics, licks, and/or whatever else he can to get a song across. This tradition of borrowing and retelling goes back to the beginning of song and story. Even the title of Modern Times is a wink-eye reference to a film by Charlie Chaplin. It doesn't make Dylan less; it makes him more, because he contains all of these songs within himself. By his use of them, he adds to their secret histories and labyrinthine legends."

But more than that, it's just beautiful to listen to. The tone of the whole album is soft and sweet, reminding me of my other favorite Bob Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks. The timbre of the album is warm like honey, Dylan's voice sounds astonishingly good and the lyrics are personal rather than political - he's showing a surprisingly vulnerable side of himself.

Track highlights for me include the bouncy opening track "Thunder on the Mountain," (which surprisingly references a slight obsession with Alicia Keys), the revised folk ballad "Nettie Moore" and the tiki-tinged love song "Spirit on the Water," which features my favorite lyrics on the album: "When you're near, it's just as plain as it can be/ I'm wild about you, babe/ You ought to be a fool about me."

I used to just pretend to understand, but I really get it now: this man is a genius.

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