In We’re No. 1, A.V. Club music editor Steven Hyden examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be “popular” in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, he covers Bob Dylan’s Modern Times, which went to No. 1 on Sept. 16, 2006, where it stayed for one week.
“I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned / Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.” — Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’”
Though the notoriously cagey songwriter would be loath to admit it, these lines, scattered amid the dusty and desolate imagery of the longest, darkest, and most memorable song on 2006’s Modern Times, veer as close to autobiography as he’s ever gotten. For the past 20 or so years, Bob Dylan has lived much of his life on a literal road; in 2011 alone, he played in the neighborhood of 90 shows over the course of eight months, traveling to towns like Thackerville, Oklahoma, and Gilford, New Hampshire—as well as far-flung countries across the globe—with a band of musicians he reportedly never talks to. He’s among the three or four greatest living classic rockers, and he has more money than a 70-year-old could possibly spend in his remaining years. But for whatever reason, Dylan hasn’t quit the lifestyle of the traveling bluesman. It’s “a faith that’s been long abandoned” that he alone still believes in.
When you travel, your sense of place and time has a way of getting away from you. Even inside the structured order of a tour bus, it’s difficult to know what town you’re in from one day to the next. And when every day consists of the same ritual of getting to the venue, loading in, hanging around, playing the show, loading out, and heading to the next venue, knowing the day of the week becomes a lot less important. Each place is the same as the last; each new day might as well be the next. On the road, what constitutes reality for most people fades away; escaping into your own version of “the present” is less a fantasy than an inevitable byproduct of rootlessness.
At the risk of sounding like yet another Dylanologist trying to pass himself off as an amateur psychiatrist, I think it’s clear that Bob Dylan’s life has been defined by his desire to break away from a contemporary context. What else would drive a baby-faced Midwesterner into the deepest, murkiest roots of decades-old folk music when he was a young man, inspiring him to sing Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean” when he was barely out of his teens? Several years later, after his efforts to put “time out of mind” somehow landed him at the very heart of the culture—exactly where he didn’t want to be—he was even more aggressive about being contrary to the present, holing up with The Band in upstate New York and playing odd, old-timey songs steeped in unrepentant corniness. The rest of the world could have Sgt. Pepper; Dylan was fine bashing out “Apple Suckling Tree,” thank you very much.
After that, Dylan made his most anti-now move yet, releasing the straight-up country record Nashville Skyline. Singing in a strange, barrel-chested croon and playing songs that were pretty, pleasant, and centered on a decidedly quaint view of love—a contrast with his older songs that were stinging, confrontational, and lustful in a very ’60s sort of way—Dylan sided with the silent majority of Americans who preferred Johnny Cash and a nice, toe-tapping melody to Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic freak-outs. (And yet he still couldn’t escape: Woodstock was set up in his backyard in the hopes he would show up, though of course he didn’t.)
Deluded hippies aside, Bob Dylan has been mostly successful at divorcing himself from what the rest of us consider the present tense. And, to be clear, when I say Bob Dylan, I really mean “Bob Dylan,” the persona that’s always been slightly more knowable than the guy behind it. That Bob Dylan doesn’t exist in the same universe as people who eat at Buffalo Wild Wings or go on Twitter to dish about The Voice. He’s an early-20th-century dandy and full-time rogue, talking in old-world parables and sulking about in cowboy hats and his carefully tended Clark Gable mustache. He’s the guy cutting a hard profile on the back cover of Modern Times, which, like Nashville Skyline, found Dylan embracing sentimental love songs and outmoded musical styles. The album radically went against the grain of the era’s pop music in its willful, forceful conservatism—and yet somehow it became a pop hit anyway.
While critics grouped Modern Times with Dylan’s previous run of blues-heavy works, 1997’s Time Out Of Mind and 2001’s Love And Theft, Modern Times was in fact even more of a throwback than those records. The most startling departure, originally hinted at on Theft but accentuated on Times, was Dylan’s unironic aping of Bing Crosby on gently drifting ballads like “Spirit On The Water,” which includes openly romantic platitudes like, “I’m wild about you, gal / You ought to be a fool about me.” Whether Dylan actually donned a top hat and tails while singing that in the studio, only his faithful backing musicians will ever know for sure.
Not only was Dylan inspired by pre-rock pop on Modern Times, in many cases he merely reworked his personal favorites from the era for his “new” songs. The lilting “When The Deal Goes Down” works off the melody of the Crosby standard “Where The Blue Of The Night (Meets The Gold Of The Day).” The softly puttering “Beyond The Horizon” is taken from the ’30s pop number “Red Sails In The Sunset.” The leadoff track “Thunder On The Mountain” includes a famous shout-out to Alicia Keys, but the song’s roots go back to “Ma Rainey” by Depression-era blueswoman Memphis Minnie.
Not only did Dylan construct Modern Times from old materials, he also played his new music in a clean, non-rock style. Even with the Chuck Berry licks in “Mountain” and the hard-hitting blues DNA of “Someday Baby” (based on the oft-recorded “Worried Life Blues,” also known as “Trouble No More”) and “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” (spun off from the Muddy Waters classic), Modern Times is a gentle, easy-listening, occasionally sleepy record. Nothing on the album rocks as hard or as deep as “Cold Irons Bound” from Time Out Of Mind or “Cry A While” from Love And Theft—nor is it supposed to. While not exactly a “happy” or “poppy” record as anyone under the age of 80 would define it, Modern Times is polite, good-time music in the context that Dylan’s musical mind was living in when he made it.
To my ears, Modern Times is the weakest of Dylan’s so-called trilogy with Time and Theft. It’s certainly the slightest, and the least emotionally involving. In the style of Dylan’s hero Bing Crosby, it’s well-played and frequently ear-catching music, but it also keeps you at arm’s length. Dylan’s voice is too craggy and idiosyncratic to affect the smooth perfection of Crosby’s vocals, but the singing style still lacks the conversational expressiveness of his greatest records (Time and Theft included). Nevertheless, these criticisms aren’t really failures of Modern Times; Dylan successfully pulls off what he’s after on the record, even if it’s not to my personal liking.
Incredibly, in spite of practically begging to be ignored by contemporary music listeners, Modern Times was an unlikely commercial success, debuting at No. 1 in September 2006. It was the first Dylan record to hit No. 1 in 30 years and, at age 65, Dylan became the oldest living artist to have an album première at the top of the Billboard albums chart.
Modern Times unseated the debut record by Danity Kane, a since-forgotten girl group created for MTV’s Making The Band III. When Dylan’s one-week reign ended, he was displaced by Beyoncé’s second solo album, B’Day. One of these things obviously was not like the others, a distinction Dylan himself would’ve likely taken pains to point out. “I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years, really,” Dylan told Rolling Stone upon his album’s release. “You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them.” Dylan’s complaints pertain to audio (not necessarily artistic) quality, but his discomfort at once again finding himself playing on a pop-music field couldn’t be expressed more plainly. And yet there Bob Dylan was, with his biggest record in years. How did it happen?
Dylan has always had his fans, but the robust first-week sales of Modern Times (which topped 190,000 copies) suggest something bigger at work. Those inclined to shake their heads at modern pop music (or complain about records that “have sound all over them”) could look at Dylan’s high chart debut as a sign that maybe things weren’t all bad after all. Nothing is ever more popular in dark times than “other,” and that was especially true in 2006; if it had been an option in the presidential election a few years earlier, “other” would have soundly beaten President Bush and John Kerry. What could be more “other” on the pop charts than an album made by a senior citizen drawing on music his parents would’ve enjoyed?
Modern Times doesn’t have the trappings of what most people would associate with pop music. But the album, like Dylan himself, chases an idealized version of something that existed only in the imaginations of songwriters and music-makers many years ago. Transcending reality in order to reach something “better” is the essence of what pop dreams are made of. With Modern Times, Dylan’s desire to escape only brought him closer to us.
Coming up: Blues Brothers’ Briefcase Full Of Blues