Bob Dylan's humor takes center stage


Bob Dylan's new album, "Modern Times," shows the songwriter's romantic side.

Sony Pictures Classic
Published: Friday, September 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 11:51 p.m.
"Funny" and "sexy" are two words that don't often surface in the heap of praise directed at Bob Dylan. He always has been as skilled a wisecracker as a waxing poet, and who could doubt his penchant for romance? After all, he wrote "Lay Lady Lay." To his own chagrin, Dylan's spicy side has long been overshadowed by his talent for writing generational anthems.
Now, in the autumn of his years, he's rightfully admired for creating a body of work that's biblical in spirit and, virtually, size. But it's good to remember that his joke book packs as much punch as his archive of wisdom. And don't forget his little black book, either.
"Put some sugar in my bowl, I feel like laying down," Dylan, 65, sings on the make-out ballad "Spirit on the Water," borrowing the line from Nina Simone, who also knew that love, laughter and rage coexist on the same color wheel. The song is based around a descending guitar line as polished as a gigolo's smile. Its Hoagy Carmichael swing is only one sound explored on the new album "Modern Times," which also encompasses Chicago blues and - nothing else to call it - Dylanesque rock. But the song's seductiveness turns up everywhere. Recorded with Dylan's current touring band, which shows the simpatico grace of an ensemble out to prove nothing beyond the pleasure of each other's company, this swinging, sometimes mournful, often tender set of 10 songs proves an easy album to, well, love.
"Modern Times," which is being released Tuesday, fulfills the mandate of a late Dylan album: Its songs make you think hard about the past and muse quietly about the future. Titles like "Thunder on the Mountain" feature apocalypse aplenty, and rejuvenating interpolations of source material from Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins and the like further Dylan's efforts to expose the "strong foundation," as he calls it, of his own work. But Dylan also gives a randy tickle to the funny bone and the family jewels, reminding us all that, in pop at least, profundities register better when stirred with something sweet.
The sauciness of "Modern Times" is a necessary complement to its more philosophical side. Although his personal eccentricities earn chuckles, Dylan's work is never taken lightly, partly because of his own legacy building. The process of Bob Beatification that's been going on since 1997 - the year he released his late-phase masterwork "Time Out of Mind" and survived a serious wake-up call in the form of a heart infection - has secured his status as Bard of Rock, whose music encapsulates everything serious and noble about American music. He's our living Rosetta stone, his songs carrying forth the essence of a thousand blues and folk classics, connecting the canonical and the folkloric to the present day.
Dylan has aided this process through several dramatic acts of self-documentation, most recently his memoir "Chronicles" and the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary "No Direction Home." He has been analyzed by Oxford don Christopher Ricks, named an album ("Love and Theft") after a study of blackface minstrels by University of Virginia prof Eric Lott, and continues to be nominated regularly for the Nobel Prize.
Dylan's music supports these elevating moves: He has made three great records since hitting the age of AARP membership, each more explicitly grounded in arcane Americana, such as the borrowed Muddy Waters titles and the lyrical references to Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe. The case for Dylan as enduring Serious Artist has been secured by his own footnotes.
Yet even as Dylan transformed himself into Shakespeare, something else was happening. He was getting ... looser. Maybe it started with the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup that also featured a Beatle, George Harrison, shaking loose of his heroic shackles. In that band's 1990 single, "She's My Baby," Dylan sang about his girl sticking her tongue right down his throat. In the video, he's wearing a straw boater hat, a foreshadowing of the straight-out-of-"Deadwood" costumes he currently wears. He doesn't look as if he's making history. He looks as if he's having fun.
Fun has been a major aspect of Dylan's resurgence, although it's not often emphasized by the man himself or his iconographers. The lyric of "Highlands," the standout epic ballad from "Time Out of Mind," turned on a lengthy comedy routine involving a waitress and a hard-boiled egg. (There was also a line about Dylan's neighbors complaining that he was playing his Neil Young records too loud.) "Love and Theft," whose CD packaging included a staged "band rehearsal" photograph worthy of some folkie "Spinal Tap," started off with a musical sketch about two outlaw clowns named Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and got more raucous from there. Now, with the more musically subdued "Modern Times," Dylan takes time to explore the nuances of romantic comedy, although his jokes usually carry a sting and his romance, like so many, ends in tears.
Charlie Chaplin, whose last silent film likely inspired the title of "Modern Times," invented a character similar to the one Dylan inhabits here. A sad sack with hidden powers, Chaplin's Little Tramp gets his girl only after many rounds of humiliation. Dylan exposes his own romantic desires and weaknesses throughout the songs of "Modern Times," pinning a rose to his torn lapel and crooning in that hard-won, threadbare voice:
I'm touched with desire/ What don't I do?/ Through flame and through fire/ I'll build my world around you/ The end times might be near, but that's no reason to stop spooning.
The image of an old man in full Casanova mode is one that makes many people uncomfortable. Dylan foregrounds the ludicrousness of his courting stance in "Thunder on the Mountain," the Chuck Berry-style romp that begins the album, by expressing a certain fascination with R&B singer Alicia Keys. Keys is not much older than Dylan's youngest daughter, and that's reason enough to snicker - no wonder Dylan weeps whenever he thinks of her, growling his admiration in a tone that only shows off his vocal decrepitude. But she's a ringer here.
The woman Dylan pursues throughout the fire and flood of "Modern Times" is someone who has been around much longer. She is the universal temptress who dances through Dylan's dreamscape: Call her Bathsheba, Salome or simply "sugar mama," as Dylan does. Innocent or a "lazy slut" (as Dylan indecorously calls her in "Rollin' and Tumblin," one of the album's Muddy Waters rewrites), momentarily captured or forever elusive, she represents the futility of pursuing anything but provisional happiness within a dying world. The one time Dylan does name her on "Modern Times" reinforces her unattainability: It's in the elegantly folkish "Nettie Moore," whose title he took from a mid-19th century song about a love affair destroyed when the woman, a slave, is sold.
Dylan's view of women is as traditional as his love of analog recording and old-timey songs. This self-proclaimed family man, who felt so little need to distinguish the identities of his ex-wives in his autobiography that he merged them, does seem a bit miffed that young women in particular exert so much pull over him. Yet even if the furious longing he expresses throughout "Modern Times" has one root in a pre-feminist's discontent with modern gender roles, it's also heavier than that. The silly, wretched pounding of Dylan's heart, like the ragged flower Chaplin's Tramp offers his tattered sweetheart, presents romance as the strategy against life's devastating assaults. This heroism, Dylan ruefully intimates, is bound to fail.
In songs like "Thunder on the Mountain," the sexual metaphor "I got the pork chops, she got the pie" finds its way into scenes worthy of Revelations, or in the Patti Smith-style jeremiad "Ain't Talkin," which inserts a homely image borrowed from a bluegrass tune - "Eatin' hog-eyed grease in a hog-eyed town" - into a landscape otherwise rife with visions of eternal light. It seems that what Dylan wants us to remember about the traditional music he champions isn't that it was deeper or more serious than the well-engineered sounds that fill our ears now. It's that the old songs don't make distinctions between serious and funny, love and religion, the food of the body and the food of the soul. Like an old man and his "Modern" music, the old songs are beyond all that.

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