Critics have been salivating in anticipation of this album's release. It's easy to understand why. Its two predecessors, 'Time Out of Mind' and 'Love and Theft' contained some of Dylan's best work.
Unfortunately, it means that few critics have given this album an honest appraisal. Somewhat like an honorary Oscar, the reviews are glowing and gushing in equal measure, forgetting that the same people probably panned better work produced by the same artist in the past. The desire for symmetry, and a trilogy of great Dylan albums, overrides the obligation to give a proper review.
In short, 'Modern Times' is a good album, but it cannot be considered the equal of the previous two.
In fact, on first listen, the album sounds a bit like a warming-up of the cast-offs from the 'Love and Theft' sessions. Though over subsequent listens the album reveals itself more fully, it certainly owes more to 'Love and Theft' than 'Time Out Of Mind'.
Nonetheless, it has some stand-out songs, such as 'Thunder on the Mountain', 'Rollin and Tumblin'' and 'When the Deal Goes Down'. And 'Spirit on the Water' is a beautiful song that deserves to be considered among Dylan's best.
Still, there are a few low points on the album. Some of the lyrics of 'Workin' Man's Blues' are pretty clunky. Try the opening four for starters: "There's an evening haze settling over town/Starlight by the edge of the creek/The buying power of the proletariat's going down/Money's getting shallow and weak." It may not seem so egregious written on the page, but when heard with Dylan's stumbling recitation over musical accompaniment it is truly awful.
Dylan's strength has always been to make the words match the meter (if not exactly the meaning) of a song, but he fails abjectly on too many occasions in 'Workin' Man's Blues'. And occasionally elsewhere on 'Modern Times' the lyrics don't fit as well as on previous Dylan albums.
'Modern Times' will take pride of place in most Dylan fans' collections. But for those coming to him for the first time, there are better places to start.
Barry J Whyte