Both Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft” found Bob Dylan looking to the American musical past in a way that he hadn’t in years. Time Out of Mind was mostly blues-based, and “Love and Theft” covered blues and Americana. Modern Times covers that seem territory, but also includes swing and jazz influences. This era must have been on Dylan’s mind. The album covers includes a fuzzy version picture of a 1930s car surrounded by city lights, and the album title alludes to Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times.
And like its two predecessors, Modern Times finds Dylan in familiar territory, but he’s not coasting. “Thunder on the Mountain” moves along with a rockabilly bounce as Dylan tells the listener that Alicia Keys has been on his mind. “When the Deal Goes Down” might be Dylan at his jazziest. It’s a sound that could easily turn into something cheesy in the hands of some-one like Rod Stewart, but Dylan gets inside the song and uses a business exchange, or card game depending on your view, as a metaphor for death. “I owe my heart to you, and that’s saying it true,” He croons. “I’ll be with you when the deal goes down.”
And in case you think that Dylan has forgotten the social issues of his youth he’s laments the state of the working man in “Working Man Blues #2”. It’s the type of song that one can imagine that men would sing on trains during the Depression as they made their way from town to town in search of work. “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is based on the blues standard “When the Levee Breaks” made famous by Led Zeppelin. While Zeppelin’s version was furious, Dylan’s version is more sorrowful, and gains more resonance since the song was recorded less than a year after Hurricane Katrina. It’s hard not to picture the devastation of New Orleans when Dylan observes, “some people on the road carrying everything they own”.
Like many classic Dylan albums, Modern Times ends with an epic that only Dylan could conceive. “Ain’t Talkin” one of the darkest and spookiest songs Dylan has recorded. Over a sparse guitar Dylan walks through “the mystic garden” and admits that he’ll “burn that bridge before you can cross”. “Ain’t Talkin” comes off as an updated version of “Talkin’ World War III Blues” where the narrator wakes up in a post-apocalyptic world. In that song, Dylan seems shocked by what he sees. In “Ain’t Talkin” though, Dylan isn’t shocked, but just bitter. He says that he’s still yearning, but then he wants you out of his miserable brain.
Ultimately, Modern Times uses the past to shine light on contemporary subjects. In it’s own way, it’s Dylan’s most political album (without being explicitly political) since the protest days. It’s not as direct, and he’s still got a lot on his mind – we just have to listen.