Joel Rosen of Slate gives the new Dylan album a favorable hits all the expected marks when he declares Modern Times to his best album since Blood on the Tracks, which implies clearly that he thinks Dylan has been producing crap during most of that thirty one years. I find it ironic that thirty one years ago I reviewed Blood for the San Diego Reader and gave it bad review. My grievances were Dylan's straying from the kind of blues-informed surrealism that typified what I still think is his best period--Another Side of Bob Dylan through John Wesley Harding-- in favor of a more conversational, chattier, looser, more cliche bound lyric style that cast Dylan's persona as a wandering stranger. Our hero would go town to town, from job to job, meeting interesting men, having affairs with alluring, cryptic women, and then would be off again after some minor incident, some unsaid faux paux, walking up the road, sticking his thumb out, the sun setting, the lights of the next town in the next state glowing over the hillside, dreaming up vague strands of philosophy to assuage an even vaguer heartache he was feeling. He was Joe Christmas always intersecting with Lana Grove in some desolate, anonymous America,
an angle interesting enough to work once or twice, but this was a field that was over tilled.
It sounded constructed and contrived to me at the time, toned up on the energy and ramped up on the bullshit, and to this day I'm of the opinion that Dylan is a miserable story teller and someone who has a difficult time creating narrators with a personality that don't seem to be recreation of how he spends his weeks.
But I've softened my position considerably and now find much that I was too impatient to appreciate all those decades ago, and yet I can't bring myself around to say that it's one of his best albums. It isn't. My review ventured the guess that Dylan had run out of things to say, and had lost his knack for saying the obvious in interesting language and locutions--Paul Simon and John Updike could show him something in that regard--but he maintains his need to talk, to write, to prate continually as if the production of songs, albums and tours in his late career were another shoring brick in is reputation and a hedge against death.
There are a couple of stacks of meandering and mumbled music between Blood on the Tracks and Modern Times, and truthfully I think it's only within the last decade that Dylan has gotten his mojo back. Oh Mercy,Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft are strong music from an artist who's persona finally fits the gathered texture of his years. There is finally things he has to say before he offers his last guitar strum, and I suspect Modern Times will only add to what seems like a long and robust third act in this remarkable man's life.