Need a Lift: Modern Times

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It’s the first day of the fall semester, and I’m back in the classroom. This morning I had the honor of teaching 42 students over two courses for their first college class. Their eyes were (mostly) bright, eager for the education ahead. They chuckled at my jokes, not yet jaded by rapid-fire exams and up-all-night essays. I felt glad to be the first teacher to usher them into their college existence, even if all we did was go over the syllabus. The fall semester never seems more promising than on the first day.

And yet, there’s a sadness here too. Today marks the undeniably end of Summer 2016, a summer in which I cycled the Erie Canal and hung out on Lake Champlain, spent two weeks home in Orlando and later mourned the Pulse shooting victims from Kansas City. I bumbled around, read books at my leisure, wrote poems and songs, chapters and Dylan essays. Summer 2016–save for the shooting–was a model of what I wish my life could be always.

I’m of two minds today, both in regards to the changing of the academic season and the Dylan album at hand, “Modern Times.” After two stellar, life-enhancing albums in a row, Dylan here seems struggling to recapture that resurgent late-career energy. Right from the billowing intro to track one, “Thunder on the Mountain,” it seems the band is trying to gather steam around Dylan, but while he’s “Wonderin’ where in the world Alicia Keys could be,” the tune just can’t excite him. Besides, “Thunder on the Mountain” sounds a bit too similar to the Grateful Dead jam, “Fire on the Mountain”–and this isn’t the only Dead echo on the album. Track four, “When the Deal Goes Down,” a 3/4 waltz, borrows directly from the Garcia-Hunter composition, “Deal.”

Whereas on “Love and Theft,” Dylan was lifting lines from Twain and Fitzgerald, here he constructs entire choruses around both Grateful Dead tunes and blues-rock standards. The third track, “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a Muddy Waters original, echoes Canned Heat’s arrangement from Woodstock, or the one from Eric Clapton’s mid-90’s “Unplugged.” But Dylan spruces up the tune with his own associative lyrics. The effect is of a meandering train starting from the Muddy Waters station but digressing and detouring before looping back around. The same holds true for another Waters tune–“Someday Baby,” a take on “Trouble No More” thundered out by the early Allman Brothers Band. And “The Levee’s Gonna Break”–Led Zeppelin, anyone?

This patchwork structure of borrowed licks and lyrics coupled with original blues-themed phrases seems deliberate and, therefore, uniquely Dylanesque. His work here becomes a mosaic of all the songs he’s heard, the books he’s read, the American musical tropes he’s helped carry. Originality falls under such doubt it no longer matters; turns out in Dylan’s mind, it never did.

These are discussions I’ll have with my students this semester: how to converse with a text; how to incorporate another writer’s ideas in a way that doesn’t squelch your own originality; how to cite sources. That’s the academic mission, to further the conversation while protecting the input of each participant. Dylan’s project is different. Dylan seeks to embody the conversation, to make himself a conduit for all of its participant’s expressions.

Still, on “Modern Times,” the strongest tracks are the ones that seem the most original. Track two, “Spirit on the Water,” is a jazzy love song in which Dylan rightly ponders “What does it matter, what price I pay?” for his lover’s affection. “Workingman’s Blues #2” is a stand out with a strong, descending progression for a chorus in which Dylan commands, “Meet me at the bottom don’t lag behind / Bring me my boots and shoes / You can hang back or fight your best on the front line / Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues.”

But then again, what of the Grateful Dead album, “Workingman’s Dead”? Is the phrasing not too similar? What of the claims that lyrics throughout the album are cribbed from Ovid, from Henry Timrod. That parts “Nettie Moore” date back to the mid-nineteenth century?

This album warrants a scan through SafeAssign, or TurnItIn, our plagiarism databases. But don’t think we can nail Dylan–or Jack Frost as he calls himself under the production credits–for dishonesty. If you don’t get what he’s doing, it wasn’t meant for you.

Do I get it? I have to say, the borrowing makes me uneasy. Do I need the previous albums to get it? Never before have we seen such an amalgamation of music and literature on display, and without apology. Do I like it? Parts feel tired, loose; I wish I could trust it.

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