“I like cows, ’cause they faces are so round and brown and easy to understand.” - Lightnin’ Hopkins*
Driving back from Louisiana on Labor Day, listening for the first time to the new Bob Dylan CD, we caught our self thinking: When is the new Bob Dylan CD gonna be over? Because by that point, just outside of Beaumont, it was all receding into one wheezy, grinding aural blur, and we were growing groggy on the highway. Surely it would end soon and we could find something to our liking on the radio, there at the apex of the Golden Triangle.
But no … it went on. And on, well past the point where the landmark Red Carpet Inn used to stand. But we listened, dutifully, because we’ve always listened to what Bob Dylan has to sing and say, dating back to when Like a Rolling Stone was all over the radio in 19-and-65. We listened to Self Portrait---we liked Self-Portrait, and wish we still had ours---and even gave a borrowed copy of Under the Red Sky a couple of chances. When we were in high school we five-fingered Tarantula and read it through in study hall, and even though it was a distinctly bad excuse for a book we really liked the cover and wish we hadn’t sold it for a pittance at Half Price Books 20 years ago (’cause it’d bring a lot more on eBay today).
Later, we listened to Time Out of Mind and couldn’t figure out what all the critical fuss was about, then went back and listened again after several people whose opinion we trust told us how good it was (and still couldn’t figure out what the fuss was about). Love and Theft was better---we enjoyed the one where he stole the melody from a tune we know only as the background music for one of our favorite Lil’ Rascals episodes (when they were good: pre-Spanky)---but it’s not like we spent a lot of time with it after the first five or so spins.
But we had hopes for the chart-topping Modern Times, primarily because of Bob’s recent extracurricular activities. Chronicles was as engaging a book as everyone said it was, and his Theme Time Radio Hour on the satellite radio (which we download here, in the spirit of love and theft) reveals the host to be a generous and affable codger with an appreciation for a variety of great American music and a penchant for precise diction.
The reviews have been uniformly positive, if not downright gushing: the guy at Slate called it his best since Blood on The Tracks (a grievous misestimation: Modern Times isn’t fit to occupy the same shelf as Infidels, much less Street Legal) and just yesterday we heard Imus pronounce it a “great, great” album (Imus’s tastes in music are sketchy, although we’ve seen Levon Helm on his show twice---this is still a great country when you can wake up and see Levon Helm perform live on TV at 6:30 in the morning).
We couldn’t say Modern Times is a horrible album; it’s just flat, turgid and uninteresting. A low listenability quotient, if you will. We did take note of that line we’d previously read about, the one where he boasts (or confesses) to having “sucked the milk out of a thousand cows.” This might have been funny on Highway 61 Revisted; on Modern Times it sounds creepy.
Oh well. Maybe it’s just that we, too, sometimes feel old and raspy and diminished, and would rather not be reminded of that.
We’ll give it another listen …
Addendum: We’ve listened again, twice, and it’s our considered opinion that Modern Times contains two decent songs that warrant further listenings: Thunder on the Mountain (the one where he sucks the milk from 1,000 cows and rhymes “sons of bitches” with “orphanages”) and his appropriation of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ (“I got troubles so hard I just can’t stand the strain/Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains …” [Maybe that’s the problem!]), but it's not even Cream, much less Muddy Waters.
Which means Modern Times would have worked better as a 45.
(Workingman’s Blues #2 threatens to turn interesting at points, but he’d have been better off doing a straightforward remake of Merle’s Let’s Rebuild America First.)
The rest of it … we’ll file next to Saved.
Further Addendum: Ron Rosenbaum has an idea why Modern Times sucks so many cows: It’s the Bobolators!
*Lightnin’ Hopkins may not have said this. Maybe it was John Lee Hooker. Or some friend of ours.