It's easy to take the title of Bob Dylan's latest album, his first since 2001's "Love And Theft," as a joke. There isn't anything particularly modern about Modern Times' songs; their influences stop with the rock and roll of Dylan's youth. The sound also isn't particularly modern, thanks to the clean, plug-in-and-play approach favored by producer "Jack Frost." (Dylan, of course.) But then there's Dylan expressing lust for—or at least a keen interest in—Alicia Keys on the first song, "Thunder On The Mountain." He follows that up by name-dropping Ovid's The Art Of Love, describing an apocalyptic, abandoned Washington D.C., and closing with the desire to go "up north" to work the land. It isn't exactly modern, but the jumble of eternal themes and contemporary references is as much a product of its times as anything Dylan has ever done.
In "Workingman's Blues #2," there's even a near-retreat to Dylan's protest days, though it sidesteps the protest by dismissing the folks that "never worked a day in their life" and touting the simple virtues of marital bliss and a diet of rice and beans. The album is filled with sentiments as sweet as they are hard to take at face value, thanks to Dylan's raspier-than-ever delivery and wry-as-ever sense of humor. It's also filled with hate for love gone wrong. On the blues tune "Someday Baby," for instance, Dylan promises to wring his baby's neck (he rhymes it with "I'll make it a matter of self-respect"). The tension never gets resolved, and the album-closing "Ain't Talkin'," a rambling mystery song in the mold of Time Out Of Mind's "Highlands," answers no questions.
But the conundrums aren't the songs, they're within the songs. The slow-building atmospherics of Dylan's 1997 comeback album have given way to some of the most immediately accessible tunes in his catalog. The titles don't try to hide the most obvious influences—19th-century folk songs, Muddy Waters, Dylan's recent touring partner Merle Haggard, the Bible—and like those influences, this is a populist effort. By Dylan's reckoning, the world is crumbling fast, but it's still sing-along time.