The title "Modern Times" is as much of a joke of any on this album, but the most elaborate one. Bob Dylan has made it his mission to keep alive musical styles that are anything but modern and, at age 65, writes as much for his peers as anyone in his generation of pop music.
His late-career resurgence has been amply rewarded — Grammys for his last two albums and an Oscar in 2001. But to these ears, those were a preamble. "Modern Times" is powerful and more consistent than its recent predecessors. At times rollicking and at others reflective, it's the work of a master songwriter who knows how to use guile where flash might have worked in the past.
Dylan's book "Chronicles" was most rewarding for the sly sense of humor often overlooked in a man whose work is taken so seriously. That side flourishes here. By the second verse of the rocking opener "Thunder on the Mountain," he somewhat inexplicably name-checks Alicia Keys.
A mature sense of love populates the disc's most heartfelt songs — a love that brings a deep appreciation to passion and, on its flip side, knows how to despise in the way only experience can teach.
The elegaic "Workingman's Blues 2" sadly honors a blue collar tradition that is disappearing. "The Levee's Gonna Break" can't avoid the context of New Orleans, particularly the closing line of "some people are still sleepin', some people're wide awake."
Or not. Who knows? Dylan's songs are as inscrutable as ever, and listeners are best advised to find what they want in them.
Dylan's touring band backs him with subtlety. It often uses repeated musical phrases to push the story forward, like the descending guitar line on "Spirit on the Water" and deliberate percussion in "Nettie Moore." It helps Dylan make full use of the rasp, cackle and pop of his weathered voice.
"You think I'm over the hill," he sings at one point. "You think I'm past my prime. Let me see what you got. We can have a whoppin' good time."