I am a pretty good writer. At least I thought I was. I could think of things to say. I could make a point.
I could express myself somewhat. That was until Bob put out Modern Times last week. Now I don’t
think I’m such a good writer anymore. Because I cannot put into words how powerful this album is. How huge and important
this achievement is in the history of American Culture. I strain to comprehend the vastness of what has been achieved here.
My mind is spinning, swimming in the casual beauty of the arrangements, the mastery of the ensemble performance, the honesty
and humility of the creaky, lone singing voice, literally the voice of America, the amazing ability he possesses to say everything
that needs to be said about the world right now without specifically saying anything at all. I chuckle to myself
and feel quietly awed and envious. I'm sure all his peers do too. After thirty years of wandering, Dylan found his final
and greatest voice on Time Out Of Mind and now, some ten years later, has come close to damn near
perfecting it. I can’t see him singing any better, any easier, any more emotionally. The overall word for this massive
triumph of the spirit is unforced. Everyone else trying so hard to say something, so hard to hit the point right
on the head. Dylan just does it. Without any effort. It’s astonishing how easy it seems for him. Because he’s
not trying. Because he doesn’t have to.
He has recorded an album of new songs that sound like they were written in 1929 or ’39 or ’49
or either ’99 and has used “modern” technology to capture the performances of what could be the best band
he’s ever had in a way that could not have been accommodated in any of those years. But it can be and has been accommodated
now. This could be the best sounding record he’s ever made. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, Dylan has become “unstuck
in time.” It no longer has any hold upon him. He is skipping from decade to decade, existing in the Eternal Now. In
the ’80’s, especially, he sounded bogged down under the weight of silly production, immediately dated recording
values, straining to keep up with the times, trying to sound “modern”. It’s ludicrous now. This music gives
new meaning to the word “timeless”. These songs, these performances, and these recordings have no date on them
whatsoever and never will. A hundred years from now, this record will not have aged one day, let alone a century. And in this
gesture, Dylan makes his most powerful commentary on the world at large: Nothing in today’s culture has any value, any
longevity anymore. It’s all disposable nothingness. And culture, and the world, even, was a better place fifty years
ago. A hundred years ago. Or at least, the music was. This album is a roadmap of American music. And the best American
Music, according to Bob Dylan, is African-American in nature: Jazz Balladry, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock and Roll, the hearty collision
of Black and White. And in the hands of a master such as this, it’s all the same beautiful thing, a grand,
rolling river of merging cultures…like America itself. Or at least, in the best dream of what America was supposed to
be when it was invented. Integration of ideas, of ideology, unity and liberation for all. And nowhere on this album does Dylan
refer to this idea literally. He lets the music do it for him.
The world teeters on the brink of something dangerous and frightening. A crippling over-dependence on petroleum,
a rash of terrorism resulting in a Big Brother-esque monitoring of personal freedoms in the name of fear, a Biblical rift
seething over Jerusalem between peoples who will never find peace with one another, millions of innocents left to suffer
from any number of natural disasters, be it earthquake, hurricane, plague or famine, while governments concentrate on feeding
the machine and economy of war…and on and on it goes, spiralling out of control. There are three images I get when
I listen to Bob Dylan’s newest and perhaps greatest masterwork Modern Times: One is of the
great Charlie Chaplin, another artist/prophet who literally towered above all others of his time as he made poignant and knowing
observation after obversation about the crazed world around him. Another is of the beginning frame of Woody Allen’s
“The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion”, a film made in 2001, which fills the entire screen with a gigantic 1940. The third, stranger still, is from an old episode of Star Trek called “All Our Yesterdays”,
in which the last remaining survivors of a planet on the brink of exploding all jump through a Time Machine’s portal
to live out the rest of their days in the relative safety of some chosen other year in the past of their planet’s history.
I can’t help thinking this is what Dylan is doing with music so vital, calm and beautiful, it takes you to whatever
past year your mind can dream of going, away from a dark present overwrought with media madness, violent
greed and deep human division. But the magic in this wonderful statement of purpose and humanity is that the destination could
not only be the past, but the future as well. There is hope still. There is. There is. To borrow from the
master, "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."
This is Big Genius at work. This is a gift to a needy world.