To make a start at reviewing the reviews of Modern Times — here’s Andrew Dansby in the Houston Chronicle. He gives the album 4 (out of 4) stars, and it’s a reasonably smart review. However, he nearly blows it all at the beginning by saying this:
If “Love and Theft” was, as titled, Bob Dylan’s album about love and theft (of the blues) and Time Out of Mind was his album about death and theft (having had a personal brush with the reaper), then the new Modern Times is his love and death record.
Say that all again?
What Dansby is doing here is actually pretty typical, which is one reason I’m picking it out. Reviewers feel the need to put neat labels on Dylan’s albums, and to compare one to another in this way. But of-course this way of characterizing what the various albums are “about” is all wrong. It’s a false premise. The most remarkable thing about Dylan’s output is not that each album deals with different themes, but rather that his themes are amazingly consistent. It’s the angle at which he comes at them that changes, along with the musical textures, lyrical styles and vocal flavors.
Far be it from me to try to definitively list the themes of Dylan’s career, but here are just some that I think are pretty well ingrained:
- Mortality, and an attempt to make sense of life in the face of it.
- A sense of the passing nature and worthlessness of much of what we on Earth obsess over and allow to control our lives.
- An acute awareness of injustice, and a knowledge that injustice does in fact triumph more often than not in this world, and that this is both the way things always have been and the way they always will be — at least in this dimension.
Those could all be put more elegantly, no doubt (and Dylan certainly does it more poetically) but those are some big ones, in my opinion.
Now — compare how he goes at those themes on, say, Bringing It All Back Home versus Modern Times.
In 1965, it was It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).
For them that think death’s honesty
Won’t fall upon them naturally
Must get lonely.
The passing nature of what we obsess over?
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Made everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much
Is really sacred.
Injustice? Oh, why not this verse:
While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked.
In 2006, it’s When The Deal Goes Down.
Each invisible prayer is like a cloud in the air
Tomorrow keeps turning around
We live and we die
We know not why
But I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.
The passing nature of what we Earthlings obsess over?
Well I picked up a rose
And it burnt [ poked?] through my clothes
I followed the winding stream
I heard deafening noise
I’ve felt transient joys
I know they’re not what they seem
The midnight rain follows the train
We all wear the same thorny crown
Soul to soul
Our shadows roll
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.
Forty one years apart. A remarkable 24-year old, and a both remarkable and vastly experienced 65-year old. Attacking the very same themes, I’d suggest.
There is a certain difference, of-course, at least in the two examples given. It’s Alright Ma offers no specific consolation to the listener, other than the (by no means negligible) sort that is derived from just identifying the problems. At the end, we’re left with:
And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.
That harks back to the transience of life itself. But it’s not overly comforting to think that nothing matters because life itself doesn’t matter. And yet, the singer is getting at something there too. If life itself is “life only,” then it compels the question, “What else is there?” No answer is provided, but the question itself is a healthy one. The answer, as with the answer to many of the healthy questions that Dylan asked during these years, is left blowing in the wind.
Four decades later, Dylan is not without answers. But he’s sure learned some cute ways to deliver them.
Each great theme — mortality, the passing nature of our Earthly concerns, and the inescapability of injustice — is addressed with the same simple refrain: “And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.” The musical accompaniment — and the way the song is sung — leave no doubt to the listener that this does constitute, to the singer, a resolution of the various sadnesses he has been describing. (The musical nature of It’s Alright Ma, by contrast, conveys a lot of discord.)
So who is the “you” who the singer is so certain that he will be “with” when “the deal goes down?”
Is it — as the reviewer in the Houston Chronicle and many other reviewers seem to think — an especially beguiling lady friend? A beguiling lady friend who will somehow finally resolve mortality, provide him with treasures which are worthwhile instead of fleeting, and conquer injustice? Aren’t those the kinds of things a Bible-reading guy like Bob understands that only the Good Lord can do?
Well, Dylan is leaving it a little mysterious, and the listener may too, if the listener so chooses. But I think, in his way, Dylan is still busy slipping in those good and healthy questions. And certainly sticking faithfully with the same (always topical) themes.
More frailer than the flowers
These precious hours
That keep us so tightly bound
You come to my eyes
Like a vision from the skies
And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.
And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
(Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, Verse 5.)