This trio of albums rivals Dylan’s other stellar triple shots: Bring It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde in the 60s; and Blood On the Tracks, The Basement Tapes and Desire in the 70s.
I’ve said it many times before in many different ways… most recording artists would sell their mothers for one string of albums as great as any of those. That Dylan has done it three times, among 25 other albums of varying degrees of greatness, is simply astounding.
It’s easy to lump these albums into a trilogy because of the creative renaissance they represented for Dylan. But the truth is Modern Times and Love and Theft have more in common with Dylan’s following studio release than they do with Time Out of Mind. But I’ll get to that one next week.
Like Love and Theft, Modern Times is produced by a little-known newcomer to the music scene… a dastardly fellow named Jack Frost. Forty years into his career, following adventures in production both horrific and sublime, it feels like he’s finally found the perfect person to breathe the proper life into his music. Jack Frost is, of course, Dylan himself.
I remember when news of this album’s release first came out, an anonymous leak claimed it contained “at least three masterpieces.” I found that pretty funny, as if that “masterpiece” designation was something you could easily and definitively measure. The “at least” part amused me the most… was the reviewer awaiting a test result before declaring that fourth song official?
Once I got the album, though, I had to agree, even if I wasn’t sure the reviewer and I had the same three and a half masterpieces in mind. ‘Nettie Moore’ is one, certainly, and ‘Ain’t Talkin’.’ ‘Workingman’s Blues #2,’ at least three quarters of a masterpiece. ‘Spirit On the Water’ all the way. And ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ when I’m in the right mood.
Opening track ‘Thunder On the Mountain’ is a masterpiece in its own right, as is Modern Times in its entirety. This song got a lot of press for Dylan’s mention of Alicia Keys, a bizarre and charming reference rendered all the more anachronistic by the fact that Dylan lifted part of the line from a 1940 Memphis Minnie song.
There’s a ruckus in the alley and the sun will be here soon
Today’s the day, gonna grab my trombone and blow
Well, there’s hot stuff here and it’s everywhere I go
I was thinkin’ ’bout Alicia Keys, couldn’t keep from crying
When she was born in Hell’s Kitchen, I was living down the line
I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee
Feel like my soul is beginning to expand
Look into my heart and you will sort of understand
You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away
The writing’s on the wall, come read it, come see what it say
Thunder on the mountain, rolling like a drum
Gonna sleep over there, that’s where the music coming from
I don’t need any guide, I already know the way
Remember this, I’m your servant both night and day
The pistols are poppin’ and the power is down
I’d like to try somethin’ but I’m so far from town
The sun keeps shinin’ and the North Wind keeps picking up speed
Gonna forget about myself for a while, gonna go out and see what others need
I’ve been sitting down studying the art of love
I think it will fit me like a glove
I want some real good woman to do just what I say
Everybody got to wonder what’s the matter with this cruel world today
Thunder on the mountain rolling to the ground
Gonna get up in the morning walk the hard road down
Some sweet day I’ll stand beside my king
I wouldn’t betray your love or any other thing
Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I’ll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman’s church and I’ve said my religious vows
I’ve sucked the milk out of a thousand cows
I got the porkchops, she got the pie
She ain’t no angel and neither am I
Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes
I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams
Thunder on the mountain heavy as can be
Mean old twister bearing down on me
All the ladies of Washington scrambling to get out of town
Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down
Everybody’s going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could and I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed – no need to confess again
Gonna make a lot of money, gonna go up north
I’ll plant and I’ll harvest what the earth brings forth
The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf
For the love of God, you ought to take pity on yourself