If Bob Dylan's 31 studio albums have taught us anything, it's not to take his words at face value. The title of album No. 32, Modern Times, is a typically mischievous Dylanism. For one thing, it's a joke. Since the early '90s, Dylan has been in revolt against musical modernity, forsaking contemporary production values, singing traditional folk ballads, and steeping his own songs in old-timey sounds. In an interview in the latest Rolling Stone, Dylan calls digital recordings "worthless" and "atrocious." ("I don't know anybody who's made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years," he says.) Of course, the album title also alludes to Charlie Chaplin's classic 1936 film. And there is something Chaplinesque about the impish Dylan of 2006, with his funny mustache and old hat. The tragicomic hero who trudges through Dylan's recent songs is a lot like the Little Tramp—a spiritual hobo, battered by cruel fate and heartless women, wandering, as he sings on the new album, down a "long and lonesome road."
Dylan nearly died from a heart infection in 1997 and became a senior citizen this past May. Recently, he's been busy with legacy management, publishing his autobiography and collaborating with Martin Scorsese on a worshipful documentary. But the real achievement of the last decade is his magnificently rejuvenated career as barnstorming live performer and recording artist. On Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001), Dylan reconnected to his songwriting muse. Among other things, these albums showed that Dylan's famous conversion to rock 'n' roll—when he "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—was a big fake-out. Whether shouting above the supercharged rock on his classic mid-'60s albums or singing these raggedy blues-soaked tunes in his time-ravaged voice, he's always been a folkie, or more precisely, a folklorist. Hardscrabble blues, 19th-century parlor ballads, gospel testimonies, ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and other songs as old as the hills, and as immovable—Dylan's music has carried these echoes from the start, but never with such a sense of mission as in his recent work. If there is an extra hint of fatigue in his rasp these days, it may be because he's weary from bearing that heavy load. It's not easy being America's living, breathing musical unconscious.
Modern Times is 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 (1975). As usual, it's verbose. Dylan pours out verse after verse—aphorisms and parables, jokes and laments, valentines and metaphysical musings—over loose-limbed vamps from his excellent touring band. In the opening boogie blues, "Thunder on the Mountain," Dylan sings about God, the apocalypse, vengeance, war, and more earthy matters: "I got the pork chops, she got the pie/ She ain't no angel and neither am I." The songs are full of such jarring segues, moving in a line or two from grand spiritual yearnings to yearning for Alicia Keys. It's a great songwriting technique, and it's also a worldview—the idea, consecrated in the blues and, for that matter, in 40 years' worth of Bob Dylan songs, that the sacred and the fleshly exist on the same plane.
Not all the words and music here are Dylan's. He lifts lines from Memphis Minnie, Merle Haggard, and his favorite source, the biblical Yahwist; "Rollin' and Tumblin' " is a rewrite of a Muddy Waters number. But Dylan surrounds these borrowings with his own brilliant and uncanny poetry: "I'm walking with a toothache in my heel"; "Gonna raise me an army of some tough sons-a-bitches/ Gonna recruit my army at the orphanages"; "I wanna be with you in paradise, and it seems so unfair/ I can't go back to paradise no more/ I killed a man back there." "Workingman's Blues 2" starts out as awkward social realism, with Dylan singing about "the buying power of the proletariat." But then come the bursts of lyricism: "In the dark I hear the nightbird's call/ I can feel a lover's breath/ I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall/ Sleep is like a temporary death."
Those who haven't kept track of Dylan in recent years may be startled to hear his voice. On the ballads, he sounds exceptionally sweet and plush, his famous nasal croak giving way to a kind of nasal croon. I don't use the term lightly: Dylan's fondness for the dulcet, lightly swinging ballads of Bing Crosby and other '30s crooners surfaced on Love and Theft and is further explored here. Back in the '60s it was Dylan more than anyone else whose brash, visionary music swept away genteel old-guard pop. It's fun to hear him revive the music of his parents' generation in songs like "When the Deal Goes Down" and "Beyond the Horizon," whose lilting Hawaiian guitar and lyrical references to The Bells of St. Mary's make the Crosby connection explicit.
That song is one of the most starry-eyed Dylan has ever sung, a gently tumbling soft-shoe that takes a celestial view of romance: "Beyond the horizon/ In springtime or fall/ Love waits forever/ For one and for all." The lines vaguely recall Philip Larkin's famous "what will survive of us is love," and for all the blues-drenched premonitions of doom and rambling bad-ass tales on Modern Times, I suspect that love is the thing that will survive of it. Dylan has for so long been spoken of as the "voice of his generation" and (more absurdly) as a "protest singer" that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that—from "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," "I Want You," and "Lay Lady Lay" to the wrenching lovelorn plaints on Blood on the Tracks and Desire (1976) to Love and Theft's rapturous "Moonlight"—love has been his great subject. Of course, Dylan can be brutally anti-romantic: In "Rollin' and Tumblin' " he barks, "Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains," a doozy of a misogynistic dis, even by Snoop Dogg standards. Still, you won't hear a sweeter moment this year than the one in "Workingman's Blues 2," when Dylan coos, "Come sit down on my knee/ You are dearer to me than myself." Modern Times will amply reward the solitary Dylanologist, poring over its runes for clues to the eternal mystery of Bob and the universe. But this is an album best experienced with a loved one; I hate to break it to Justin Timberlake, but a wheezy old man has recorded the best make-out songs of 2006. Put Modern Times in the CD player, pull your sweetheart close, and—as a young man advised a lifetime or so ago—shut the light, shut the shade.