September 14, 2006

Bob Dylan Gets Old

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No one could blame our generation if we said we were sick and tired of Bob Dylan. In 1997, while we American kids first became preoccupied with those postmodern feminist ironists from the U.K., the Spice Girls (no joke) — the old man put out Time Out of Mind, his first honest-to-goodness album since he ended his convoluted and abortive religious journey, converting to Christianity then into Judaism then out of all of it (the religion was not good for his music, say most).
Old folks, including every single commentator in the entertainment media, tripped over each other’s canes praising Dylan’s “comeback”—after thirty years. Over the next decade, Ol’ Man Dylan put out an amazingly prolific one album, the universally adored Love and Theft, wrote one bestselling autobiographical book, Chronicles, and was the subject of one of legendary director Martin Scorcese’s only documentaries, No Direction Home. Needless to say, there’s been plenty of hoopla over all of it from the baby-boomer crowd, to the point of getting nauseating. Maybe some of you have even heard it from your folks.
A confession: I am somewhat guilty here of the sin of hypocrisy. Contrary to the above diatribe, I must admit to owning each one of Dylan’s sixties albums, all of which I love, plus the way overrated 1975 Blood On the Tracks, and the charming Basement Tapes bootleg with the Band (hardly the best bootleg in American pop, though, as many claim —getcha self Prince’s Black Album and say that again). I have, however, refused to follow his misadventures over the previous decade and am intimately familiar with absolutely nothing the man has done since ’75.
Now, suddenly, I am faced with the task of writing, with no context, eight hundred words about Bob Dylan’s newest, Modern Times. This one has been subject to the most repulsive hype yet. Senior rock critic Robert Christgau, who has been perceptive enough in recent years to comprehend and praise M.I.A., Sleater-Kinney, Eminem, DJ Shadow, the Magnetic Fields, and Ghostface Killah, embarrasses himself exalting this album. Falling into the same trap critics have since the sixties, thinking that what is good about Dylan is that he’s more like a real live artist or poet than a mere pop star, he compares the guy to “Yeats, Matisse, and Sonny Rollins.” Basically, kids, this album “radiates with the observant calm of old masters who have seen enough of life to be ready for anything.”
Whatever. There’s not much we can say in response to this sort of preemptive generational self-defense, making sure that we know we’re wrong if we don’t like this stuff because we’re just young’uns (like Dylan, Yeats, Matisse, and Rollins were when they did their most important work). At least we are typically smart enough to notice that Bob Dylan is a pop musician, who has much more to do with the Spice Girls than with Yeats, and that’s what is good about him, and if he has literary inheritors, they don’t publish poems or even write songs, they rap. (To Dylan’s credit, it seems like he knows all of this too.) In this case our generational vantage point must certainly allow us a more historical perspective, one not obscured by the fog of boomerist religious devotion.
OK, OK, the album. It’s not bad. Those who think that Bob Dylan represents everything that is authentic and intellectual in rock music might do well to check it out; there is no “Hard Rain” righteousness, or “Subterranean Homesick Blues” rebellion, or “Chimes of Freedom” philosophizing. Instead, we have here ten songs that sound like they came from the most commercial, easy-listening oriented elements in Nashville circa 1947. Which is, make no mistake, a good thing. Anachronistic references to Alicia Keys and occasional Marxist rhetoric make sure we don’t think of it as a period drama, but rather a commentary on American collective memory and the social role of the idea of the future.
The Charlie Chaplain film masterpiece that this album ware surely named for was a politically charged story of life under cutting-edge technology, contemporary industry and new forms of economy. Dylan, on the other hand, is grasping back at a time before even he was born. His shift with Blood on the Tracks from political and aesthetic revolution to self-involved pathos was proof that by 1975, the sixties were finally over. It’s been hard enough for our culture—or at least our parents—to get over that decade, and perhaps this fond look back to a time in which steam engines and factories really were modern is an attempt to displace our pathological sixties fixation.
Of course, it won’t work, coming from Mr. ’60s himself. As nice as the album is, it is probably only be of use for those who grew up with Dylan and made the descent into solipsism alongside him. As for the rest of us, we have plenty of important things to attend to, with innovation abounding in hip-hop, electronica, world musics, and even some rock and roll.
And I hear there might be a Spice Girls reunion. Zig-a-zig-ah.