Bob Dylan has tried on so many new hats recently - radio DJ, bestselling author, lingerie salesman - that it is almost a surprise to find him coming out with a good old-fashioned studio album. And old-fashioned this one certainly is. Despite its title, Modern Times is a backward nod to the world of Dylan's boyhood, conjuring up an atmosphere of smoke-filled dance halls and crooners in dinner jackets. The sentiments are equally mellifluous. "When you're with me/I'm a thousand times happier than I could ever say," Dylan intones on the lilting, quasi-mystical "Spirit on the Water". For a man who once fired off put-downs faster than George Bush spews out malapropisms, that's quite a departure.
To be fair, Dylan has been heading down this road for some time. His previous two albums, Time Out of Mind (1997) and Love and Theft (2001), marked a shift towards a softer-edged sound. And yet on neither record did he embrace schmaltz with as much gusto as he does here. But, predictably, it is schmaltz of a singular kind, tempered by Dylan's cracked voice and the underlying mood of blackness in the jaunty rhythms and sentimental turns of phrase. Preoccupied with endings and finality, Modern Times is an old man's work, with several songs ("When the Deal Goes Down", "Beyond the Horizon") gesturing to a shadowy hereafter. And then there's the marvellous, wrenching "Nettie Moore", with its doleful, world-closing-in chorus ("I loved you then, and ever shall/But there's no one left to tell/The world has gone black before my eyes").
Lyrically, Modern Times contains plenty that satisfies, but nothing really astonishing. The album kicks off with the foot-stomping boogie-woogie number "Thunder on the Mountain", in which Dylan good-humouredly (if somewhat improbably) claims to have "been thinkin' about Alicia Keys". The anthemic "Workingman's Blues #2" just about gets away with the line: "The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down." In truth, Dylan's lyrics have for some time been more the background than the main event; analyse them too closely, and the "genius" label seems misplaced.
Happily, however, Dylan's two other great assets - his remarkably consistent songwriting and his often underappreciated voice - remain undiminished. There are only a couple of dud tracks on Modern Times; all the others repay multiple listenings. And Dylan's vocals are a wonder. The high-pitched nasal whine has dropped a few notches and metamorphosed into a husky, whiskey-soaked drawl; as such it is perfectly suited to the arch, weary but still hopeful tone of Modern Times. At one point Dylan asks, with amused defiance: "You think I'm over the hill/You think I'm past my prime?" This album proves that there's life in him yet.