While not necessarily a huge fan of his music, I have been reading with great interest the different interpretations that publications like Rolling Stone and the New York Times have been giving the “Modern Times”, the new CD by iconic blues-rocker Bob Dylan, which dropped in stores this week. It seems no one can miss the dark apocalyptic tone of “Times” and the way it marks a return by Dylan to overtly spiritual musings about the meaning of life. But while God does make an appearance in a few of the songs, anyone looking for an answer to the years of speculation over Dylan’s much publicized conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s–and the subsequent debate as to whether he has held to that faith, returned to his Jewish roots, or abandoned all of the above–will not find the answer here.
On listening to “Modern Times” the first time through, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed. I didn’t feel the urgency and vibrancy of some of Dylan’s early music, and several of the songs seem to center around his love-hate relationship with women. But on a second listen, the real depth of Dylan’s lyrics started to sink in, and I realized anew that Dylan is not someone you can appreciate on the surface level; he requires you to dig deeper.
In the song “When The Deal Goes Down,” lines like “We all wear the same thorny crown / Soul to soul, our shadows roll / And I’ll be with you when the deal goes down” could be referring to a a human relationship or a relationship with God. Similarly, in the song “Beyond the Horizon,” Dylan seems like he is talking about a human relationship until the end of the song, when he states, “I’m wounded, I’m weary / My repentance is plain / Beyond the horizon o’r the treacherous sea / I still can’t believe that you have set aside your love for me.” At that moment , these poetic images turn the meaning of the song around and indicate this is really a love song to God.
When Dylan is not preocupied with love in some shape or form, he certainly is fixated on how our world is coming to an end, and if this CD is any indication, Dylan believes the world’s demise is soon. The prophetic “The Levee’s Gonna Break” is the CD’s shining moment, song not only about what happened in New Orleans a year ago, but which also serves as Dylan’s warning that worse times are ahead. He laments: “If it keeps on rainin’, the levee’s gonna break / Some people still sleepin’, some people are wide awake.”
Overall, the thoughts and images that Dylan creates through his songs on “Modern Times” are subtle and mesmerizing. While Dylan doesn’t answer the question of exactly where his spiritual sensibilities are these days, he does make a statement to all of those who are wondering. In his last song, “Ain’t Talkin’, Just Walkin,'” Dylan quietly croons, “I am a-tryin’ to love my neighbor and do good unto others / But oh, mother, things ain’t going well / Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’ / through the world mysterious and vague.”
So am I, Mr. Dylan. So am I.