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'Modern Times,' Bob Dylan's 44th album, is a pensive, understated collection of blues, ballads and jazz.
"Modern Times," Bob Dylan's 44th album, is a pensive, understated collection of blues, ballads and jazz.

The bluesman cometh

Elegant and spare, Dylan's new CD feels like old times

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

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