"Funny" and "sexy" are two words that don't often surface in the heap of praise directed at Bob Dylan. He always has been as skilled a wisecracker as a waxing poet, and who could doubt his penchant for romance? After all, he wrote "Lay Lady Lay." To his own chagrin, Dylan's spicy side has long been overshadowed by his talent for writing generational anthems.
Now, in the autumn of his years, it's good to remember that his joke book packs as much punch as his archive of wisdom. And don't forget his little black book, either.
"Put some sugar in my bowl, I feel like laying down," Dylan, 65, sings on the make-out ballad "Spirit on the Water," borrowing the line from Nina Simone, who also knew that love, laughter and rage coexist on the same color wheel. The song is based around a descending guitar line as polished as a gigolo's smile. Its Hoagy Carmichael swing is only one sound explored on the new album Modern Times, which also encompasses Chicago blues and -- nothing else to call it -- Dylanesque rock. But the song's seductiveness turns up everywhere. Recorded with Dylan's current touring band, which shows the simpatico grace of an ensemble out to prove nothing beyond the pleasure of each other's company, this swinging, sometimes mournful, often tender set of 10 songs proves an easy album to, well, love.
Modern Times, which is being released today, fulfills the mandate of a late Dylan album: Its songs make you think hard about the past and muse quietly about the future. Titles like "Thunder on the Mountain" feature apocalypse aplenty, and rejuvenating interpolations of source material from Muddy Waters, Carl Perkins and the like further Dylan's efforts to expose the "strong foundation," as he calls it, of his own work. But Dylan also gives a randy tickle to the funny bone, reminding us all that, in pop at least, profundities register better when stirred with something sweet.
The sauciness of Modern Times is a necessary complement to its more philosophical side. Although his personal eccentricities earn chuckles, Dylan's work is never taken lightly -- his music encapsulates everything serious and noble about American music and his songs carry forth the essence of a thousand blues and folk classics, connecting the canonical and the folkloric to the present day.
Fun has been a major aspect of Dylan's resurgence. The lyrics of "Highlands," the standout epic ballad from Time Out of Mind, turned on a lengthy comedy routine involving a waitress and a hard-boiled egg. (There was also a line about Dylan's neighbors complaining that he was playing his Neil Young records too loud.) Love and Theft, whose CD packaging included a staged "band rehearsal" photograph worthy of some folkie "Spinal Tap," started off with a musical sketch about two outlaw clowns named Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee and got more raucous from there.
Now, with the more musically subdued Modern Times, Dylan takes time to explore the nuances of romantic comedy, although his jokes usually carry a sting and his romance, like so many, ends in tears. Charlie Chaplin, whose last silent film likely inspired the title of Modern Times, invented a character similar to the one Dylan inhabits here. A sad sack, Chaplin's Little Tramp gets his girl only after many rounds of humiliation. Dylan exposes his own romantic desires and weaknesses throughout the songs of Modern Times, pinning a rose to his torn lapel and crooning in that hard-won, threadbare voice:
I'm touched with desire
What don't I do?
Through flame and through fire
I'll build my world around you
The end times might be near, but that's no reason to stop spooning.
Ann Powers writes for the Los Angeles Times.