Dylan: changin' with the times
Bob Dylan delights in confounding expectations. He did so as a folkie who "went electric" at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965; the Jewish singer famously converted to Christianity in 1978; two years ago he left millions of TV viewers gaping in astonishment when he appeared in, of all things, a Victoria's Secret ad.
The enigmatic songwriter's career has taken another unexpected turn of late. Coinciding with this week's release of "Modern Times," an album that many critics are scoring as a perfect "10", the often reclusive Dylan is enjoying more public visibility than at anytime since he became a generation's icon in the 1960s.
In addition to an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" and cover stories in Newsweek and Rolling Stone, Dylan's recent activities include becoming a DJ on XM Satellite Radio, starrring in a TV commercial for iTunes, and collaborating with director Martin Scorsese on a Dylan documentary. In December, Twyla Tharp gives Dylan the Billy Joel treatment, setting his songs to dance for a Broadway show.
It all points to a career renaissance for the artist long revered as our greatest living folk-rock poet.
"He's always looking ahead,'' says Dylan scholar Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, who is a Dylan scholar. "He's addressing universal themes. A 22-year-old could listen to this record as a 55-year-old like me could.''
The songwriter, born Robert Zimmerman, has undergone periods of extreme popularity and visibility, as well as periods of notoriety and obscurity over the course of his storied career. Joan Baez once mused in the song "Time Rag" how Time magazine once profiled her only to, in her opinion, get close to the mystery man called "Bobby."
But he no longer parcels himself out as a rare commodity. For the past 18 years, he's played more than 100 concerts a year, many in college gyms, and others in minor-league baseball stadiums. He's long been known to reinvent or reconfigure his songs in concert – sometimes to the point of nonrecognition – so that they sometimes turn into tepid blues-rock shuffles.
Dylan's real comeback, however, has been in his studio work. The Minnesotan has been thought to have burned out many times, after the fabled 1966 motorcycle accident, when he wrote and directed the 1978 movie "Renaldo and Clara" movie, and during a long stretch in the 1980s. It was 1998's "Time Out of Mind" that made Dylan seem relevant again, ushering in his new halcyon era.
In addition to releasing an acclaimed followup, 2001's "Love and Theft," the troubadour has authorized the ongoing "bootleg'' series (No. 8 is supposed to come next year), and released "Chronicles," the first volume of his autobiography. He also wrote and starred in the 2003 movie "Masked and Anonymous." Dylan himself will be the subject of a biographical film that might strike some as unusual. Titled "I'm Not There" and starring Cate Blanchett and Heath Ledger, the movie will reportedly employ seven characters, male and female, to portray the bard.
Is Dylan making a bid to secure or cement his legacy?
"I don't think he's trying to control his legacy as much as this is a convergence of a couple of projects that have been in the works for a long time,'' suggests Bill Flanagan, executive vice president at MTV Networks.
He observes that Dylan had been working on the first installment of his autobiography for a long time, and publication was delayed. Moreover, he notes that Martin Scorsese's documentary, "No Direction Home," had been in the works for 10 years.
"What's interesting is he's probably doing the same number of projects he's always done, but they're not all records," continues Mr. Flanagan. "He seems as if he's stretching his literary talent into other forms and not feeling confined. He's Bob Dylan every day; the rest of us are fascinated by him.''
That would explain why the themed playlists of his weekly radio show on XM Satellite Radio have been picked over by Dylan enthusiasts. (Who'd have guessed that Dylan listens to a hip-hop artist such as LL Cool J?)
"He's pretty secretive about what his next move is, but when we talked to management about [starting] a radio show, the timing was perfect, with the book and movie," says Lee Abrams, chief creative officer at XM. "It seems like it might be a time in his career he wants to step out a little bit.... Maybe he wants to explain himself in a 'Bob Dylan' mysterious way – come out of the Bob Dylan closet in a little way, which he's done in the movie and book, and a little bit in the radio show by showing his true musical taste.''
Dylan, who declined to comment for this article, remains, as ever, an enigma. (Three years ago, he called himself "a 62-year-old Jewish atheist.'') But he's more open than he's ever been about his past, even opening himself to interviews for Scorsese.
"You have Bob talking in the documentary, and his powers of reportage and observation are enormous," enthuses Nigel Sinclair, a producer on the film. "He's a great storyteller. You see someone who's aware in a great way, conscious of the journey he's had, the journey home."
Dylan's new album, "Modern Times," has once again stirred a flurry of interest.
"He's aiming very high, to be Shakespeare, the highest he can be," says Mr. Wilentz, who penned the liner notes for the Dylan 1964 installment of the bootleg series. (He's also the official historian at bobdylan.com.) "Now, his peers are wondering, 'How do you grow old in rock 'n' roll?' and Dylan had the clarity and courage to say, 'Getting old is a subject, too.' ''
Mr. Sinclair calls Dylan's three most recent albums focused, powerful, fresh, and different.
" 'Modern Times' is a new record that's equally innovative," says Sinclair. "[It's] not a record by a person revisiting his legacy in making that record now. He's very musically alive."
Bob Dylan – Modern Times (Columbia): At 65 – and on his 32nd studio album – Bob Dylan is mostly somber and serious, working in the shuffling blues-rock mode he's employed for some time. The 10 songs on "Modern Times" chug along at modest mid-tempos, many lyrics dealing with love's vagaries. There isn't the drama, heft, or hookiness of prime-time Dylan – no rousing anthems or major statements. These are like back-porch meditations, as played by Dylan and his touring band. He can be sly – "I keep recycling the same old thoughts" in "When the Deal Goes Down" – and funny, as in a weird shout-out to Alicia Keys in "Thunder on the Mountain." The soft, elegiac "Workingman's Blues #2'' is the centerpiece, with Dylan musing "sleep is my contemporary death'' as the music meanders past gently and, later, "I say it, so it must be so.'' "Modern Times'' is calm and likable, but it doesn't match Dylan's last two CDs. Grade: B