I must confess that I strongly disliked Modern Times the first few times I listened to it. This may have something to do with the fact that the two weakest tracks are indisputably "Thunder on the Mountain" and "Spirit on the Water" and that they are also unfortunately the opening tracks on the album. When reviewers claimed that Dylan was backed by his strongest band yet, I may have set my expectations too high, but these two tracks are very lazy (in an altogether bad way) and very mediocre. These tracks make me think of the post-office-worker-by-day-coffee-shop-mu
"Rollin' and Tumblin'" is definitely one of the best songs on the record. This song makes me remember how great Dylan was live just after he released Love and Theft. It has that driving beat and rolling and sparkling guitar that has the sound of danceable and uptempo Southern rock. The lyrics on this track are particularly amusing, especially in the context of the rest of the album: "I got trouble so hard I can't stand the strain/ Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains….Well I get up in the dawn and go down and lay in the shade/ I ain't nobody's houseboy, I ain't nobody's well-trained maid." Of all the songs on Modern Times, this is one of the few that I'll crave in much the same way as I thoroughly and disproportionately overplay "Pledging My Time," "Most Likely You Go Your Way," "Dirt Road Blues," "Summer Days," and "Cats In The Well." "Rollin'" is one of the few tracks where I can definitely tip my hat to Dylan's new band, but I'm still unconvinced this isn't something his previous band couldn't pull off just as gracefully.
Like "Rollin'," "When the Deal Goes Down" is also a fine number with deeply charming and heartfelt lyrics. It harkens back to songs like "I'll Remember You" and would have fit nicely in one of those smoky scenes from Masked and Anonymous. This track represents the best songwriting on the record with verses like: "Well the moon gives light and it shines my night/ But I scarcely feel the glow/ We learn to live and then we forgive/ Over the road we're bound to go/ Far 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." It's this rugged cowboy band Dylan in a gray felt cap and suit with a pencil-line mustache growling into a big microphone and being driven by cellos and violas that I think best encompasses the reflective and romantic nature of Dylan's better recent work. All in all, I think this is the best track on Modern Times.
"Someday Baby" is a filler track, and I think it's mostly a throwaway one as well. I don't think I'll ever put in the disc with the explicit intention of listening to this track, but I also don't mind tapping my feet to it. It's wedged between two really good songs, so I guess the odds were kind of against it from the beginning. It also suffers a bit because of it's half-assed adoption of the old blues number of the same name.
"Workingman's Blues # 2" is a nice tune, and if the new band is to be congratulated for any stylistic influence on Modern Times, it can best be pointed to in this song. I don't think I have ever heard another Dylan song like this, at least in the musical and structural sense. The song has slight political and economic undertones, with references to outsourcing and working class strife. In this way, it lyrically refers back to albums like The Times They Are-A Changin' in a way that I find oddly nostalgic for Dylan.
"Beyond the Horizon" feels like it was written for a soundtrack. It is a repetitive and at times redundant track that is indulgently jazzy and would work well in Dylan's latest musical. In fact, if you try to listen to the song sans the vocals it almost sounds like it was recorded by Benny Goodman or Charlie Christenson. Like "Spirit on the Water," I find "Horizon" to be quite boring and lyrically mushy. I can't help but feel like "Horizon" is just a conflagration of fragments Dylan has scribbled down, with no real central theme. Like "Horizon," "Nettie Moore" is an interesting ballad that at times becomes tedious. The song seems to shift between sour love and jaded indifference. I'll let this track sink in for awhile before I judge it too much, because the lyrics are quite beautiful when you dissect the song, but I'm yet to reconcile them into a single theme.
"The Levee's Gonna Break" is the only other track on the album besides "Rollin'" that has any real drive to it. I have heard many people criticize Dylan for excessively ripping off traditional songs throughout the album, but I think this is a case where the originality and timeliness is appropriate. It is rare for Dylan, especially in his later work, to make explicit references to current events, but in this case I think the theme of the album combined with Dylan's recent lyrical cynicism makes the song work quite well. In contrast to what I have heard other people say, I don't think the song sounds at all contrived, musically or lyrically.
I don't really have much to say about "Ain't Talkin'" at this juncture, because it hasn't completely sunk in. The song is comparable in length and seriousness to Dylan's other recent epics like "Not Dark Yet," "Highlands," "Cross the Green Mountain," "Mississippi," and "Sugar Baby." The main difference seems to be that "Ain't Talkin'" isn't as accessible as those tracks and that it has an altogether bleaker outlook. It seems like the darkness forecasted in "Not Dark Yet" has been realized in "Ain't Talkin'." The song is very heavy and hard to digest; it is thick, dark, and morally challenging. It suggests poetic comraderie in some civil war-era struggle and I can't help but to picture Dylan pulling a horse through some Southern swamp in a gray uniform with his only food remaining being some salted meat in his pocket.
In the end, Modern Times doesn't seem to accomplish whatever it is that it set out to do. While some of the tracks seem tired, weak, and contrived, others are ingenious and profoundly compelling. The best songs on Modern Times are "Ain't Talkin'," "The Levee's Gonna Break," "When the Deal Goes Down," "Rollin' and Tumblin'," and "Workingman's Blues # 2." Perhaps it was because the album was advertised as the end of the "trilogy" that I had such high expectations for it. Modern Times, however, is loosely imagined and is difficult to listen to all the way through. It starts off very, very weak and becomes strong, with dull valleys of further weakness between. Let's just hope this isn't Dylan's swan song.