Much to my surprise, Bob Dylan's Modern Times is not the recent album from a pre-punk icon I've enjoyed the most. Instead, that would be One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, an unlikely comeback album from '70s proto-punk band the New York Dolls.
The 32-year gap between the Dolls' second album (1974's Too Much Too Soon) and third album makes a folly of the 21 alleged lost years Dylan spent between 1975's Blood on the Tracks and recording his 1997 critical/commercial triumph Time Out of Mind, a period that contained plenty of music, much of it plenty respectable.
On what I feel comfortable calling the best rock band "comeback" album ever, the Dolls are down to the band's only two living original members: singer David Johansen, who provides inspired lyrics, and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain, who composes most of the album's music, with help here and there from new recruits.
One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This opens with such a ferocious sense of purpose that, for a while, it might be even better than the band's earlier classics. The opening "We're All in Love" introduces a careening guitar sound that isn't quite as sharp as that of the dearly departed Johnny Thunders, but it isn't too far off. It sounds close to old times -- more precise, more polished, but with a smidgen of the past's raggedy glory -- but Johansen has updated the band's world view, making the gutter-glam politics explicit with an insta-classic New York Dolls lyric: "Jumpin' 'round the stage like teenage girls/Casting our swine before the pearls," which is followed by words that deftly communicate 30-plus-years of personal pop history and a basic theme: "Excommunicated then canonized/When love is strong, life intensifies."
The medium and message established in the opening minutes, the album's music explodes: "Runnin' Around" is a leering, bluesy sex song that could be vintage Stones but is deepened by Johansen's joyous gender confusion. The reverie "Plenty of Music" taps into the Phil Spector/Brill Building beauty that fed so much of Too Much Too Soon. And my 20-month-old daughter and I agree that "Dance Like a Monkey" is the song of the year.
Deploying simian sound effects seemingly left over from Too Much Too Soon's "Stranded in the Jungle," Johansen tops it with his own sound effects and lusty chatterbox exhortations over sped-up Bo Diddley beats, as he drags the culture war onto the dance floor to negotiate a truce.
A vast middle stretch brings the record back down to earth. Several songs with music from new guitarist Steve Conte are less inspired than Sylvain's numbers but are ace evocations of the Dolls' '70s sound. Then, as if having saved-up energy, they reach for greatness again to close it out, with the warp-speed punk-blues demand "Gimme Luv & Turn on the Light." The lovely closer, "Take a Good Look at My Good Looks," addresses those who might think it unseemly for a 56-year-old man to be prancing around in lipstick and heels: "Call us what you will, but/Love made us like this/So what/Yeah, the whole world is just artifice."
It's a poignant record but also playful and spiritual. It updates a sound you wouldn't think would make the 30-year transition easily, and, most meaningfully, it brings a long latent generosity of spirit to the surface, emphasizing a quality the band's many respectful imitators over the years have been least likely to duplicate.
Much like Dylan's "Love & Theft", One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This is a life record made from an aged (by rock standards) artist -- mortal and eternal at once. Despite the reflexive hype Dylan's stature and recent resurgence inspires, Modern Times suffers by comparison to both. It's still a terrific record. It doesn't have the musical juice and lyrical focus that made "Love & Theft" an instant top-five album in rock's most impressive discography, but it's likely to be a grower.
Where "Love & Theft" leaps from jazzy rockabilly rave-ups to pre-rock crooner pop to gutbucket blues, Modern Times is less gleefully dynamic. But it does boast an ease that's sure to make it a more durable listen than the more ponderous Time Out of Mind, a good record that hasn't aged as well as expected.
Dylan's delirious phrasing, portentous/playful wordplay, and rhyme-for-rhyme's-sake that rivals any rapper is, as always, the calling card. As on "Love & Theft", the musicality and wit overwhelm seductively elusive meaning, except this time even more so despite a little less musicality and a little less wit.
-- Chris Herrington
Grades: Dolls: A; Dylan: A-