There's neither humor nor irony in the blur of traffic and big-city lights on the cover of Bob Dylan's 44th album, ``Modern Times." This understated collection of blues, antiqued ballads, and back-porch jazz is very much about the contemporary world: specifically, how little it has to offer this artist. The 10 songs are everything modern life is not: languorous, spare, and muted, rooted in tradition, and willing to embrace the gloomiest vagaries of faith, philosophy, and love.
``The world of research has gone berserk/ Too much paperwork/ Albert's in the graveyard, Frank is raising hell/ I'm beginning to believe what the scriptures tell," Dylan sings in a startlingly tender growl on ``Nettie Moore." The tune is a measured and meandering composite of a 19th-century folk song, quotes from W.C. Handy and Robert Johnson , and Dylan's own meditations on desire, demagoguery, fate, and time. It's a good thing he's given himself seven minutes to lay out his copious thoughts, although in the end Dylan comes up empty-handed. His words are as plain-spoken, elegant, and probing as they've ever been, but Dylan achieves nothing so mundane, or useful, as clarity.
Certainty is a young man's game, and at 65 rock's poet laureate seems ready -- relieved, almost -- to come to terms with the cosmic abyss. In that light, the album's nonchalant production (Dylan, using the pseudonym Jack Frost, was at the helm for these sessions, which have a late-night, first-take feel) and puttering vibe (fumbles and stumbles were left in the final mix) feel just right. Both the sound and the spirit befit a man who's ``just walkin'/ through the world mysterious and vague."
Still, some may find the project a modest finale to a comeback trilogy that began with 1997's dense, bitter ``Time Out of Mind" and 2001's swaggering ``Love and Theft." ``Modern Times," in stores Tuesday, indeed lacks the fire and force of Dylan's last two studio albums. A gently rollicking rewrite of the traditional ``Rollin' and Tumblin ' " is the most pointed track on the disc, and it's the exception in a collection that's unerringly, deliberately placid.
More characteristic are a languid waltz (``When the Deal Goes Down"), a ragged, stately hymn (``Workingman's Blues #2 " ), and a pair of dreamy ditties (``Spirit on the Water," ``Beyond the Horizon") that Dylan delivers in a veritable croon. It's a cracked, croaking croon, but beautiful all the same. Dylan's lovelorn troubadour has a dark double in the spiteful protagonist of the disc's handful of blues: ``Someday Baby," ``Thunder on the Mountain," ``The Levee's Gonna Break," and ``Rollin' and Tumblin ' ." On the last Dylan confesses, with an audible sneer, that ``some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains."
But life goes on, and there's one aspect of modern life worthy of Dylan's affection: Alicia Keys earns a lengthy and frankly bizarre shout-out in ``Thunder on the Mountain," an aberration he dispenses 40 seconds into the album. An hour later Dylan closes the collection -- and it's most haunted song -- with a quatrain that lassoes the lovely, unsettling mix of hope and resignation that defines ``Modern Times": ``Ain't talkin', just walkin'/ Up the road around the bend/ Heart burning, still yearnin'/ In the last outback, at the world's end."
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org