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As Dylan Walks, His Mind Wanders

Bob Dylan's inflections and asides give his thoughts resonance.
Bob Dylan's inflections and asides give his thoughts resonance.

On the closing track of his new album Modern Times, Bob Dylan casts himself as the prototypical stranger who's just passing through. The nine-minute song saunters along at a measured gait that inspires the author to savor mystic gardens and this "weary world of woe." He doesn't seek out company — he intends to take his troubled secrets with him. He is, as he notes repeatedly, not talking, just walking.

Naturally, Dylan's mind wanders as he walks. The many verses don't yield one tidy, linear tale: As happens on several of his new songs, Dylan free-associates, scattering disparate notions wildly and then seeking meaning in the array. Ambling with the bluesman's toothache in his heel, he describes "cities of the plague," plots surprise showdowns in which he slaughters sleeping opponents, ponders craven human nature ("They will tear your mind away from contemplation") and scans the skies for hints of geopolitical turmoil.

If there's an intentional order to the ideas, it's hard to discern: The steady cadence of the steps, and the liquid echoes of guitar accompaniment, matter more than any overriding theme. Often, Dylan's inflections and asides give the thoughts resonance. There's a squint in his voice when he sings about "the whole wide world which people say is round." Sometimes, he sounds spooked by life: Formless dread creeps into some images, underscored by the sepulchural wheeze of his mostly ravaged singing voice. As Dylan has said in interviews, he's not trying to be a sage or a skeptic or a cultural bellwether. He's just a seeker on the road, sharing a bit of the clarity that comes to those not searching for the big answers.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983.
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