Devotional Dylan?

13 02 2007

Last autumn I bought Bob Dylan’s latest studio offering ‘Modern Times’, and it’s a testimony to the aging icon’s songwriting skills that I’m still listening to it regularly now that we are almost into spring. It’s always a major event for me when a Dylan album is released, and he is one of the few artists who will inspire me to purchase a copy of his music on it’s release date.

To me, Dylan’s greatest strength in this phase of his musical output is the honesty with which he faces the issues in his life. He isn’t pretending to still be 25 (al la The Rolling Stones), nor is he depending on collaborations with young and trendy bands to buoy up a flagging creative impulse (a la most artists of his generation). Instead Dylan reflects on life, on death and everything in between with the at once cynical, and yet indomitably sanguine eye of maturity. Aside from all of that ‘Modern Times’ is a cracking good album!

One aspect of his albums that fascinates and intrigues me is their recurring spritual motif. Whether it be the firebrand lyrics of ‘Saved’ (‘I was blinded by the devil, born already ruined, stone cold dead when I stepped out of the womb’) in the 1970s, or the amoral defiance of ‘Honest with Me’ from Love and Theft (‘I’m not sorry for nothing I’ve done) in 2001, spiritual issues are never far from the surface. Modern Times is no exception.

One can’t help feeling that images and ideas from Scripture were of importance to Dylan in this album, not only lyrically, but also in the structure of the songs musically, and their arrangement in the track listing. The first two songs pack a hefty Pentateuchal punch with ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ carrying obvious overtones of Sinai, and ‘Spirit on the Water’ making reference to creation, and ‘darkness on the face of the deep’. Musically the album begins with a conclusion and ends with an introduction. ‘Thunder on the Mountain’ opens with a crescendo, and ‘Ain’t Talking’ (the last track) ends, only to open again with hopeful tones.

‘Ain’t Talking’ is a spiritual study in itself. The piece finds Dylan in fine lyrical form, with his dusky, blues-ridden voice slurring out doom laden words against the backdrop of a band who seem to understand and anticipate his every intonation. In the song Dylan is ‘in the mystic garden’, and records a number of episodes and experiences, interspersed with deadly humour – e.g. amidst the pastoral scene of the garden he records that ‘someone hit me from behind’ with the menacing tone of Don Corleone! In terms of reflections on God, the track carries a lot of not-so-hidden meaning. Ezekiel is referenced with ‘it’s bright in the heavens, and the wheels are flying, fame and honour never seem to fade’, and against this prophetic image of God Dylan assures his hearers that ‘the fire’s gone out, but the light is never dying, who says I can’t get heavenly aid?’. An admission of backsliding perhaps, but ultimately of faith. This is corroborated by his reference to devotion ‘all my loyal and my much loved companions, they approve of me and share my code; I practice a faith that’s long abandoned, ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road’. Just what these words mean for a lapsed Messianic Jew is difficult to ascertain.

‘Ain’t Talking’ (and the entire album) concludes with an elusive reference to the Resurrection. Dylan is back in the garden he describes at the commencement of the song, and states ‘As I walked out in the mystic garden, on a hot summer day, hot summer long, Excuse me M’am I beg your pardon, there’s no one here the Gardener is gone’.

With all of its Scriptural and spiritual references, where does Dylan wish to lead his listeners in this album? In the final assessment, nowhere. He has always refused to be set up as cultural prophet (whether in the 1960’s folk movement, or in more modern exchanges with the music press) and this album is no exception. Dylan hints, alludes, and perplexes us with his spirituality and lyricism. Does he still profess faith in Christ after his ‘conversion’ in the late 1970’s? I don’t know, but certainly the issues of faith, life and death resonate strongly in his intellectual world, and in his recordings. Dylan writes about Modern Times in ancient and elusive language, and for that very reason the album is a treasure.

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