It took Bob Dylan about 30 years to fully recover from the trauma of being “Bob Dylan,” prophet, poet and the “voice of a generation.” As Martin Scorcese’s 2005 PBS documentary reminded us, Mr. Dylan was ridiculously young when he arrived in Manhattan, a brilliantly imaginative, omnivorous, playful, wisecracking youth who was clearly having a ball both onstage and off.
It’s heartbreaking to watch and listen, in the Scorcese film and many other documentaries and live recordings, as the pressures of fame slowly but inexorably curdle that joy, turning Mr. Dylan surly and suspicious, and finally driving him to reclusion in upstate New York.
According to “Chronicles,” the surprisingly candid autobiography he published last year, by the ‘80s Mr. Dylan had completely lost his focus. He was disgusted with the music business, disillusioned with a public that literally sorted through his trash, and most crucially, completely unable to access his muse.
Records and performances from the period are evidence of a wounded artist on the defensive, at times indifferent, afraid, or angry (and yes, still occasionally brilliant), but mostly aimless, unable to look his public in the eye, unable to assert his artistic will.
With keen self-awareness, Mr. Dylan took his first baby steps on the road to recovery. These involved subtle changes to his vocal and guitar-playing technique, and his decision to devote himself to the crucible of live performances.
Painstakingly filtering out impurities, in the early ‘90s Mr. Dylan went all the way back to his roots and released two well-received solo acoustic albums of traditional folk and blues songs.
Finally, in 1997, Mr. Dylan was ready to record his first album of new material in seven years. A startling work, haunted by death, rootlessness and lost love, “Time Out of Mind” was an unprecedented return to form, and it topped the critics’ polls and won the Grammy for “Album of the Year.”
But to Mr. Dylan, it marked the end of a painful chapter as much as a new beginning. As he told Rolling Stone recently, “‘Time Out of Mind’ was me getting back in and fighting my way out of the corner.” He’s been looking forward ever since.
The last few years have seen something of a Dylan renaissance. There was the follow-up to “Time Out of Mind,” the rambunctious “Love and Theft” in 2001, followed by the autobiography, the documentary, and earlier this year, the start of the disarming and delightful “Theme Time Radio Hour” on XM Satellite Radio.
Each show has Mr. Dylan spinning old records based around a particular theme (the most recent was “Friends & Neighbors”) while recounting a little music history, cracking jokes, answering his listener mail and being generally quite charming. The dour prophet is nowhere to be found.
Clearly, Mr. Dylan is at ease, and having fun. He’s looking the world in the eye again, and even letting us peek at his cards. This renewed spirit infuses Bob Dylan’s new album, “Modern Times.”
Produced by Mr. Dylan and recorded with his longtime touring band, “Modern Times” is a testament to the artist’s full recovery. There is an almost telepathic lightness of touch in the way Mr. Dylan is finally able to capture on record what he and his musicians have discovered in the course of their seemingly endless string of live performances. The album draws freely from traditional blues, standards and pop songs.
The reference points are eccentrically varied — from Jeanette MacDonald to Cole Porter, with a whole lot of Muddy Waters thrown in — and Mr. Dylan recycles familiar structures and even hijacks entire songs to meet his own ends.
Those ends amount to a grand tour of American song, as seen through Bob Dylan’s eyes.
“Thunder on the Mountain” gets the album rolling with visions of all hell broken loose and the singer cursing the powers that be and vowing to raise an army. There are lilting parlor ballads (“Spirit On the Water,” with its sugar-sweet harmonica breaks) and ready-made, slow-dance standards, complete with country-club crooning (“Beyond the Horizon”).
There’s also plenty of dry humor. On “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” Mr. Dylan deadpans hysterically tragic one-liners like, “some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains.”
“When the Deal Goes Down” improbably works both as a tear-jerking love song and as a parody of corniness (listen to Mr. Dylan shamelessly hamming it up on the lines, “In this earthly domain full of disappointment and pain, you’ll never see me frown”).
On the ineffably sad centerpiece of the album, “Nettie Moore,” Mr. Dylan takes us back to a pre-Civil War ballad (with nods to everyone from Robert Johnson to Blind Lemon Jefferson along the way), but this time even he succumbs to the passage of time, and the song ends up conjuring tangible bereavement.
When Mr. Dylan sings, “Oh I miss you, Nettie Moore,” it becomes a yearning for a lost past we can never escape back to, no matter how plugged into tradition we may be.
After that, we’re plunged into roiling high water on “The Levee’s Gonna Break,” with its obvious parallels to Hurricane Katrina and the singer making bleak observations like, “Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bone.”
But the album’s chilling closer, the nine-minute graveyard anthem “Ain’t Talkin’,” actually reveals itself to be a song of uplift, an appeal to the best in humanity. It is a resolute call to solidarity, to taking the high road, even in difficult times.
But don’t expect any thanks for your efforts. “All my loyal and much-loved companions,” Mr. Dylan sings, “they approve of me and share my code; I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned, ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.”
The point Mr. Dylan is making with all his recent activity, and especially “Modern Times,” is that music is part of an endless chain, and artists are responsible as caretakers of precious bits and pieces of the past. To these they must add their own unique aesthetic links before extending the chain down through the generations.
Still, a serious vocation doesn’t have to mean a life of misery for its practitioners. At a press conference in the ‘60s, Mr. Dylan was asked, “Do you consider yourself a songwriter or a poet?” He famously retorted, “Oh, I consider myself more of a song and dance man” and broke up the room.
Apparently, he wasn’t completely kidding. Against all odds, Mr. Dylan is singing and dancing again.