The album was Dylan's third straight (following Time out of Mind and "Love and Theft") to be met with nearly universal praise from fans and critics. It continued its predecessors' tendencies toward blues, rockabilly and pre-rock balladry, and was self-produced by Dylan under the pseudonym "Jack Frost". Along with the acclaim, the album sparked some debate over its uncredited use of choruses and arrangements from older songs, as well as many lyrical lines taken from the work of 19th century poet Henry Timrod.
Modern Times became the singer-songwriter's first #1 album in the U.S. since 1976's Desire. At age 65, Dylan became the oldest living person at the time to have an album enter the Billboard charts at number one (Neil Diamond has since earned the title). It also reached #1 in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and Switzerland, debuted #2 in Germany, Austria and Sweden. It reached #3 in the UK and The Netherlands and has sold over 4 million copies worldwide. As with its two studio predecessors, the album's packaging features minimal credits and no lyric sheet.
Early rehearsals were held in late January and early February 2006 at the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, New York. Days after the rehearsals, recording sessions were held at Clinton Studios in Manhattan where the album was recorded digitally in roughly three weeks.
While it has been marketed as the third in a conceptual trilogy, beginning in 1997 with Time Out of Mind, Dylan himself has rebuffed that notion; in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he stated that he "would think more of Love and Theft as the beginning of a trilogy, if there's going to be a trilogy. In several other moments in the piece, however, Dylan cast doubts on whether he will record another studio album.
Modern Times was leaked online through various BitTorrent and Dylan fan websites on August 21, 2006 after 30 second sound clips were released on the official Sony website. The album was first released in some European countries (including Germany and Ireland) on August 25, in the UK on August 28 and premiered in the U.S. on August 28 on XM Satellite Radio, a satellite radio service which already broadcasts a radio program hosted by Dylan.
The response from critics was overwhelmingly positive. The publications Rolling Stone and UNCUT both crowned Modern Times with five-out-of-five stars. Rolling Stone critic Joe Levy called the album Dylan's "third straight masterwork". Robert Christgau of Blender described it as "startling [and radiating] the observant calm of old masters who have seen enough life to be ready for anything -- Yeats, Matisse, Sonny Rollins". Jody Rosen of the online magazine Slate concurred, calling Modern Times "a better album than Time Out of Mind and even than the majestic Love and Theft, which by my lights makes it Dylan's finest since Blood on the Tracks". The album was also credited for original blues and folk rock music which was said to be, "hard to hear these days" by critics.
Alexis Petridis in The Guardian ridiculed the lavish praise heaped on the album and wrote: "It's hard to hear the music of Modern Times over the inevitable standing ovation and the thuds of middle-aged critics swooning in awe." While enjoying the record, Petridis said Modern Times was "not one of those infrequent, unequivocally fantastic Dylan albums". Jim DeRogatis of The Chicago Sun-Times appreciated the lyrical content but found fault in the languid music, writing that "with the exception of the closing track 'Ain't Talkin', one of the spookiest songs he's ever written, Dylan disappoints with...[his] inexplicable fondness for smarmy '30s and '40s balladry".
Perhaps the sourest review came from Ron Rosenbaum. Writing in the New York Observer, Rosenbaum called Modern Times, “a wildly overhyped disappointment... The new album is possibly the worst since Self Portrait, with songs that rarely rise above the level of Dylan’s low point - and everybody seems afraid to say so.
Some reviewers who liked the album were critical of its musicianship, such as The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot, and Jon Pareles of The New York Times, who wrote that "onstage Mr. Dylan’s touring band regularly supercharges his songs. But on Modern Times the musicians play as if they’re just feeling their way into the tunes.
According to Metacritic, a site that tracks prominent critical opinion, Modern Times' approval rating hovers around 89%.
Shortly after its release, the album sparked some debate in the media concerning its songwriting credits - mainly the liner notes' contention of "All songs written by Bob Dylan", which appears in most editions of Modern Times.
Many of the album's songs have roots in well-known older compositions. In all cases, Dylan has at least given the songs new verse lyrics.
None of these previous incarnations or their authors are credited, though Dylan has casually acknowledged some of the uses - in a 2004 Newsweek online feature, Dylan mentioned that he was working on a song based on a Bing Crosby melody, now known to be "When The Deal Goes Down".
The lack of official credits is not a legal problem, given the age of the songs, but it troubled journalist Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal. Fusilli thought that this was contrary to Dylan's long track record of noting his influences, as in the liner notes of 1994's World Gone Wrong. Joe Levy of Rolling Stone claimed to have raised the question with Sony BMG executives, who shrugged it off as a non-issue.
Levy and many others have supported Dylan in the context of a larger, older blues and folk tradition of songwriters evolving old songs into new ones, which Dylan was no stranger to in the 1960s. Pete Seeger himself has previously expressed the view that Dylan is a link in this chain of folk and blues song writers. It is also interesting to note that in the previously mentioned Newsweek feature Dylan also mentioned that he sometimes listens to different things to help spawn ideas, and also in the recent past Dylan has said openly in various interviews that he often does write and always has written melodies by using traditional and older "classic" songs as a base.
In September 2006, The New York Times ran an article exploring similarities between some of the lyrics in Modern Times and the work of 19th century poet Henry Timrod. Albuquerque disc jockey Scott Warmuth is credited as the first to discover at least ten substantial lines and phrases that can be clearly traced to the civil war poet, across several songs. Dylan and Sony have declined to comment on the matter, and Timrod's name is nowhere to be found on the liner notes..
Bob Dylan - "Working Man's Blues #2" - "No one can ever claim/That I took up arms against you"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 2, Lines 51-53 - "no one can claim that I ever took up arms against you"
Tristia, Book 5, Section 12, Line 8 - "or Niobe, bereaved, lead off some cheerful dance"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 5, Section 13, Line 18 - "that I'm wrong in thinking you have forgotten me!"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 5, Section 14, Line 2 - "wife, dearer to me than myself, you yourself can see"
Albuquerque disc jockey Scott Warmuth added further findings:
Bob Dylan "Ain't Talkin'" - "Every nook and cranny has its tears"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 24 - "every nook and corner had its tears"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 65 - "loyal and much loved companions, bonded in brotherhood"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 1, Section 3, Line 68 - "let me make the most of one last extra hour"
Bob Dylan Ovid - Tristia, Book 2, Section 1, Line 179 - "Show mercy, I beg you, shelve your cruel weapons"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 4, Section 7, Line 51 - "there's barely enough skin to cover my bones"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 5, Section 7, Lines 63-64 - "I practice terms long abandoned"
Ovid - Tristia, Book 5, Section 7, Line 66 - "tear my mind from the contemplation of my woes"
Ovid - Black Sea Letters, Book 2, Part 7, Line 66 "I'm in the last outback, at the world's end"
Ovid - Black Sea Letters, Book 3, Part 2, Line 38 - "who approve, and share, your code"
Harvard professor Richard F. Thomas did a thorough exploration of Dylan's interest in Ovid in his essay "The Streets of Rome: The Classical Dylan" which appeared in the journal Oral Tradition and added a few more similarities:
Bob Dylan, “Ain’t Talkin’” Who says I can’t get heavenly aid?
Ovid, Tristia 1.2.12-13 Who says I can’t get heavenly aid when a god’s angry with me?
Ovid, Tristia 5.1.80 I want to be with you any way I can.
Ovid, Tristia 5.8.3-5 Why jump / on misfortunes that you may well suffer yourself? / I’m down.
Ovid, Tristia 5.12.19-20 I’m barred from relaxation / in a place ringed by countless foes.
Ovid, Black Sea Letters 2.4.24 I cannot believe these things could fade from your mind.
Ovid, Black Sea Letters 4.6.42-3 Them I’ll forget, / but you I’ll remember always
The lyrics of the song appear both to have a political/quasi-socialist background as well as that of an esoteric love ballad, and convey the "world-weariness" and sense of experience for which this album has become known. The forever descending bass line outlines this. Spiritual undertones are possibly present in the lyrics although not explicitly so. It is unclear whether the persona is a generic working man, or Bob Dylan himself or someone else altogether. Overall, as with so many of Bob Dylan's songs over the decades, the lyrics can be interpreted in a vast number of ways and many things may be inferred from them.
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The LP edition is a two-disc set, produced on 180-gram audiophile vinyl.