Modern Times (Bob Dylan album)
|Studio album by|
|Released||August 29, 2006|
|Studio||Clinton Recording, New York City|
|Genre||Folk rock, blues, rockabilly, Americana|
|Producer||Jack Frost (Bob Dylan pseudonym)|
|Bob Dylan chronology|
|Singles from Modern Times|
Modern Times is the 32nd studio album by American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, released on August 29, 2006 by Columbia Records. The album was the third work (following Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft) in a string of albums by Dylan that garnered wide acclaim from critics. It continued its predecessors' tendencies toward blues, rockabilly and pre-rock balladry, and was self-produced by Dylan under the pseudonym "Jack Frost". Despite the acclaim, the album sparked some debate over its uncredited use of choruses and arrangements from older songs, as well as many lyrical lines taken from the work of 19th-century poet Henry Timrod.
Modern Times became Dylan's first No. 1 album in the U.S. since 1976's Desire. It was also his first album to debut at the summit of the Billboard 200, selling 191,933 copies in its first week. At age 65, Dylan became the oldest living person at the time to have an album enter the Billboard charts at No. 1. It also reached No. 1 in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, debuted No. 2 in Germany, Austria and Sweden. It reached No. 3 in the UK and the Netherlands, respectively, and had sold over 4 million copies worldwide. In the 2012 version of Rolling Stone magazine's list of "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time", Modern Times was ranked at No. 204.
Background and recording
The album was recorded with Dylan's touring band, including bassist Tony Garnier, drummer George G. Receli, guitarists Stu Kimball and Denny Freeman, plus multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron. This iteration of the Never Ending Tour band had played with Dylan for the entirety of 2005. Dylan and band rehearsed the songs at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York, in late January and early February, 2006, before heading to New York City to record them. As with its predecessor, Love and Theft, Modern Times was engineered and mixed by Chris Shaw.
Shaw remembered the recording sessions going slower for Modern Times than for Love and Theft: "The sessions for Modern Times went a little slower, it took maybe a month rather than three weeks. Not for any real reason I can pinpoint. Bob had a lot of ideas to sort through, there were a lot of different versions of each song he had to settle on before he could decide where he wanted them to go, and I think he had this vision in his head that maybe he couldn’t quite articulate to the band as quickly, so it took a few times trying out ideas to get it to land where he wanted it to be. And I think there was a lot more lyric writing he had to deal with".
Freeman remembered the sessions as being difficult, though this is something he doesn't think is evident when listening to the album: "Modern Times was a difficult challenge for me. We were feeling our way through it all, and it seemed like it was going really slow, trying to find the songs. Listening to it, I think it's a very coherent album, musically and lyrically and simple, in a good way. Simple in that the melodies and arrangements are 'right there' and the songs sound to me like they would have come together quickly and easily. But that's not the way I remember it happening. Bob seemed frustrated much of the time. But I never really knew what he was thinking, of course".
Anticipation and release
Dylan's historical stature, as well as his renewed critical acclaim following Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft, helped to make Modern Times a highly anticipated release. As with Love and Theft in 2001, Sony held a listening event for critics far in advance, but those invited were forbidden from disclosing details or opinions about what they heard prior to the official release.
Modern Times was leaked online through various BitTorrent and Dylan fan websites on August 21, 2006, after 30-second sound clips were released on the official Sony website. The album was first released in some European countries (including Germany and Ireland) on August 25, in the UK on August 28 and premiered in the U.S. on August 28 on XM Satellite Radio, the satellite radio service that carried Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour program.
While the album was marketed as the third part of a conceptual trilogy, beginning in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, Dylan himself rebuffed the notion. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he stated that he "would think more of Love and Theft as the beginning of a trilogy, if there's going to be a trilogy".
Reception and legacy
|The A.V. Club||A|
|MSN Music (Consumer Guide)||A+|
Response to Modern Times from music critics was overwhelmingly positive. On Metacritic, a site that tracks prominent critical opinion, Modern Times holds a score of 89 out of 100, indicating "universal acclaim" and putting it among the 100 most acclaimed albums on the site. In a five-star review, Rolling Stone critic Joe Levy called the album Dylan's "third straight masterwork", while Uncut called it a "direct and audacious sequel" to Love and Theft. Robert Christgau of Blender described it as "startling [and radiating] the observant calm of old masters who have seen enough life to be ready for anything—Yeats, Matisse, Sonny Rollins". Jody Rosen of the online magazine Slate concurred, calling Modern Times "a better album than Time Out of Mind and even than the majestic Love and Theft, which by my lights makes it Dylan's finest since Blood on the Tracks". The album was also credited for original blues and folk rock music which was said to be "hard to hear these days" by critics.
Alexis Petridis of The Guardian, while enjoying Modern Times, felt that it was "not one of those infrequent, unequivocally fantastic Dylan albums" and ridiculed the lavish praise heaped on the album, writing: "It's hard to hear the music of Modern Times over the inevitable standing ovation and the thuds of middle-aged critics swooning in awe." Jim DeRogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times appreciated the lyrical content but found fault in the languid music, writing that "with the exception of the closing track 'Ain't Talkin'', one of the spookiest songs he's ever written, Dylan disappoints with... [his] inexplicable fondness for smarmy '30s and '40s balladry". Some reviewers who liked the album were critical of its musicianship, such as the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot, as well as Jon Pareles of The New York Times, who wrote that "onstage Mr. Dylan's touring band regularly supercharges his songs. But on Modern Times the musicians play as if they’re just feeling their way into the tunes".
Perhaps the sourest review came from Ron Rosenbaum. Writing in the New York Observer, Rosenbaum called Modern Times, "a wildly overhyped disappointment... The new album is possibly the worst since Self Portrait, with songs that rarely rise above the level of Dylan's low point—and everybody seems afraid to say so".
Modern Times became Dylan's third successive album to top The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll, following Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft. The album also topped Rolling Stone's list of the 50 best albums of 2006, and was later ranked number eight on the magazine's list of the 100 greatest albums of the 2000s. At the 49th Annual Grammy Awards in 2007, Dylan won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album for Modern Times and the Grammy Award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for the song "Someday Baby".
Elton John is a fan of the album and has cited it as an inspiration for him to try and capture a more live-in-the-studio sound for his 2013 album The Diving Board: "It floored me, that someone of Dylan's great output could come across and make an album like that at his age, which was for me so timeless and sounded so brilliant. I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to make a record again, I've got to make it sort of sounding like that, because that's how I like my records to sound".
In a 2020 list of "Bob Dylan's 10 greatest albums" in Far Out magazine, Modern Times was ranked tenth. An article accompanying the list characterized the album thusly: "Not bound by genre or style, Dylan digs through a plethora of blues, country and rock songs, offering his audience the chance to hear the indigenous stories behind the music. Dylan spins the songs into a thread far more modern but is still able to weave them into the tapestry of the country nevertheless".
Artwork and versions
Because of the length of the songs, the entire album stretched out to two LPs.
The album's cover photo is Ted Croner's 1947 photograph Taxi, New York at Night. The image was previously used as a cover by the band Luna for their 1995 single "Hedgehog/23 Minutes in Brussels".
The album was released in both standard and Limited Edition formats, with the special edition including a bonus DVD of four Dylan music videos. The DVD contains "Blood in My Eyes" (Promo Video), "Love Sick" (Live at the Grammys, 1998), "Things Have Changed" (Promo Video) and "Cold Irons Bound" (Masked and Anonymous Video).
Shortly after its release, the album sparked some debate in the media concerning its songwriting credits, mainly the liner notes' contention of "All songs written by Bob Dylan", which appears in most editions of Modern Times.
Many of the album's songs have musical roots in well-known older compositions, though in all cases, Dylan has given the songs new lyrics.
- "Rollin' and Tumblin'" is a blues standard first recorded and possibly written by the bluesman Hambone Willie Newbern. An arrangement very similar to Dylan's but with different lyrics was a hit for Muddy Waters, who is also credited with writing the song. Except for the first verse, all the lyrics in Dylan's version are original.
- "When the Deal Goes Down" is based on the melody of "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)", a signature-song for Bing Crosby.
- "Someday Baby" is based on an old standard that can be traced back to "Worried Life Blues", recorded by Sleepy John Estes, and made famous in versions by Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters. It is sometimes referred to as "Trouble No More", and often credited to Muddy Waters.
- "Beyond the Horizon" is based on the melody of "Red Sails in the Sunset," written by Jimmy Kennedy and Hugh Williams in 1935.
- "The Levee's Gonna Break" is based on "When the Levee Breaks" by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. It has been previously adapted by rock acts such as Led Zeppelin. The song has also been in the public domain since 2004.
Two other sources of the album's lyrics were cited in the latter half of 2006. In September, The New York Times ran an article exploring similarities between some of the lyrics in Modern Times and the work of 19th-century poet Henry Timrod. Albuquerque disc jockey Scott Warmuth is credited as the first to discover at least ten substantial lines and phrases that can be clearly traced to the Civil War poet across several songs. Dylan and Sony have declined to comment on the matter, and Timrod's name is nowhere to be found on the liner notes. Robert Polito of the Poetry Foundation wrote a detailed defense of Dylan's usage of old lines in creating new work, saying that calls of plagiarism confuse "art with a term paper".
In October 2006, The Nelson Mail ran an article by New Zealand poet Cliff Fell exploring similarities between some of the lyrics in Modern Times and the works of the first-century Roman poet Ovid. Fell cited numerous direct parallels between lines from Ovid and those in four of Dylan's songs. A sampling of these included:
|Song||Concerned line||Possible source text|
|"Workingman's Blues#2"||no one can claim that I ever took up arms against you.||No one can ever claim/ That I took up arms against you. Ovid (Tristia, Book 2, Lines 51-53)|
|"Ain't Talkin'"||every nook and corner had its tears.||Every nook and cranny has its tears. Ovid (Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 24)|
|"The Levee's Gonna Break"||Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones.||there's barely enough skin to cover my bones. Ovid (Tristia, Book 4, Section 7, Line 51)|
|"Spirit on the Water"||I cannot believe these things could fade from your mind.||Can't believe these things would ever fade from your mind. Ovid (Black Sea Letters, Book 2, Section 4, Line 24)|
Fell considered the borrowings a homage and not plagiarism, noting Dylan's direct reference to Ovid in the album's first song, "Thunder on the Mountain", with the line "I've been sitting down and studying The Art of Love." The Art of Love was one of the great poet's most famous works.
Dylan's response to credit controversy
None of these previous incarnations or their authors are credited, though Dylan has casually acknowledged some of the uses. In a 2004 Newsweek online feature, Dylan mentioned that he was working on a song based on the melody of a song associated with Bing Crosby, now known to be "When the Deal Goes Down". Meanwhile, Dylan has a history of being open about his songwriting techniques, and his usage of older classics. For instance, in a 2004 interview with Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, he stated,
Well, you have to understand that I'm not a melodist... My songs are either based on old Protestant hymns or Carter Family songs or variations of the blues form. What happens is, I'll take a song I know and simply start playing it in my head. That's the way I meditate. A lot of people will look at a crack on the wall and meditate, or count sheep or angels or money or something, and it's a proven fact that it'll help them relax. I don't meditate on any of that stuff. I meditate on a song. I'll be playing Bob Nolan's "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," for instance, in my head constantly—while I'm driving a car or talking to a person or sitting around or whatever. People will think they are talking to me and I'm talking back, but I'm not. I'm listening to a song in my head. At a certain point, some words will change and I'll start writing a song.— Bob Dylan, April 4, 2004
The lack of official credits is not a legal problem, given the age of the source material, but it troubled journalist Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal. Fusilli thought that this was contrary to Dylan's long track record of noting his influences, as in the liner notes of 1993's World Gone Wrong. Joe Levy of Rolling Stone claimed to have raised the question with Sony BMG executives, who shrugged it off as a non-issue.
Levy and many others have supported Dylan in the context of a larger, older blues and folk tradition of songwriters evolving old songs into new ones, which Dylan was no stranger to in the 1960s. Pete Seeger himself has previously expressed the view that Dylan is a link in this chain of folk and blues songwriters. Seeger has spoken many times about the folk process, often recounting that his friend Woody Guthrie once said to him "That guy stole that from me, but I steal from everybody". Ramblin' Jack at one time expressed similar sentiments: "Dylan learned from me the same way I learned from Woody. Woody didn't teach me. He just said, 'If you want to learn something, just steal it—that's the way I learned from Lead Belly'".
All tracks are written by Bob Dylan.
|1.||"Thunder on the Mountain"||5:55|
|2.||"Spirit on the Water"||7:41|
|3.||"Rollin' and Tumblin'"||6:02|
|4.||"When the Deal Goes Down"||5:04|
|6.||"Workingman's Blues #2"||6:07|
|7.||"Beyond the Horizon"||5:36|
|9.||"The Levee's Gonna Break"||5:43|
- Additional musicians
- Denny Freeman – guitar
- Tony Garnier – bass guitar, cello
- Donnie Herron – steel guitar, violin, viola, mandolin
- Stu Kimball – guitar
- George G. Receli – drums, percussion
- Technical personnel
- Greg Calbi – mastering engineering
- Chris Shaw – engineering
- Tom Aiezza – assistant engineer
- Sheldon Yellowhair – assistant engineer
|Canada (Music Canada)||Platinum||100,000^|
|Denmark (IFPI Denmark)||Gold||20,000^|
|New Zealand (RMNZ)||Gold||7,500^|
|Switzerland (IFPI Switzerland)||Gold||15,000^|
|United Kingdom (BPI)||Platinum||300,000^|
|United States (RIAA)||Platinum||1,010,000|
^ Shipments figures based on certification alone.
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