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Get Busy Livin'

The moans on Dylanís latest arenít exactly of the morbid death-rattle variety.

The elderly have so much to offer, sir. They are our link with history."

"I don't want to be your goddamn link, damn you. I want to feel Floris' naked thighs against my own."

"I wonder how long I'm gonna live sometimes."

"Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains."

The first two quotes are from the film Being John Malkovich. (The second is a 105-year-old discussing his secretary.) The third is a Tom Petty confession recently slapped on the cover of some magazine. And the fourth, well, that's Bob Dylan, not wondering how long he's gonna live, and certainly not being our damn link. Bob spends very little of Modern Times — his latest, out Tuesday — wallowing in fate/mortality issues. Instead he hits on Alicia Keys, says vaguely offensive and/or vaguely charming things to a host of other nameless ladies, and boasts, "I sucked the milk out of a thousand cows," with his eye firmly trained on bovine future, not bovine past. Yikes.

"You think I'm over the hill," he croaks warmly. "Think I'm past my prime/Let me see what you got/We can have a whompin' good time." A whompin' good time. Whompin'. Then he plays a little harmonica. Good times.

This ribald vivacity frankly bothers me. I prefer my rock icons of a certain age to be quavering, terrified twilighters with barely enough strength left to even knock on Heaven's door. I have a weakness for "Holy shit, I'm dying" records, be they wry and winking (Warren Zevon) or deadly serious and soul-crushing (Johnny Cash). You can argue that the latter's American series, which brutally ground to a halt this summer with American V: A Hundred Highways, laid the death-porn vibe on way too thick (track one: "Help Me"). But it was equally excruciating and exhilarating throughout to watch Johnny show professional mopers like Trent Reznor what real pain really sounded like, even if much of it was theater.

But all of this has left me with a taste for cheesy, exploitative on-my-deathbed martyrdom, and Bob's having none of it. He already made that record a decade ago: 1997's Time Out of Mind, which is my favorite Dylan album, period. On that album, lushly produced blasts of earthly lament and heavenly yearning climaxed with the swoony and grandiose "Not Dark Yet," where Bob drops his guard and lets his long "eeeeeeees" and "aaaaaaaas" flail wildly as he admits, "It's not dark yet/But it's gettin' there."

Nine years later, he's making googly-eyes at random R&B divas. "I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys," he growls on Modern Times' opener, "Thunder on the Mountain," and barely elaborates. Is this lust? Professional admiration? A cheap tabloid ploy? Anyone expecting concrete statements of intent of any kind will walk away frustrated. "The Levee's Gonna Break" is a bit too cheeky and amorphous a blues romp to justify employing that image on an album released in late-August 2006, and his widely parodied wheeeyyyyywhooooaaaa vocal tics are mostly reined in, strategically deployed either as defiance ("I ain't nobody's houseboy/I ain't nobody's well-traiiined maiiiiiid") or as a way of deflating any potentially sweeping cultural statements ("Everybody got to wonder what's the matter with this gllllrrrrrhhhhh today").

You can certainly understand Bob's preference not to tackle the gllllrrrrrhhhhh head-on. But while Modern Timesis accomplished, consistently pretty and occasionally poignant, it's ultimately weirdly vague, a government report with the juiciest details blacked out. And — to his, your and, oh, I guess probably my benefit — he avoids "Holy shit, I'm dying" grandstanding. His nostalgic malaise on the plinky piano ballad "Workingman's Blues #2" is born of exhaustion, not entropy, and when he announces, "Sleeping's like a temporary death," he's just sneering at the Great Beyond like Nas did.

The gentle gypsy swing of "Beyond the Horizon" is mere pillow talk. So's the big waltz "When the Deal Goes Down," on which Bob vows he and his latest bovine will bow out together — but it's a future as distant and hypothetical as Paul McCartney writing "When I'm 64" as a teenager. (Gorgeous song, though.) The faster, gnarlier blues-rock tunes are just OK, built to be admired but not compulsively replayed, and nothing here is as goofy or gleefully hostile as the splendid last half of 2001's Love and Theft. Too bad.

But maybe there's a third path for records of this sort, a road that splits the difference between laying prostrate at death's door and kicking it down with disdain: Sound, act and look like death itself. Which brings us to the rock icon of a certain age whose late period is vastly preferable to Bob's: Tom Waits, whose 1999 record Mule Variations mauls anything Bob/Neil/Elvis/whoever has whipped up since...Vietnam? Gulf War I, certainly. God, just go back for Waits' "House Where Nobody Lives" and stay for the rest of Variations, which is scarier, funnier, sweeter, more brutal, more honest — in fact, just more. It's often caked in layers of creep-show makeup but still naked and direct, and delivered in a pulverized voice that makes Dylan sound like Morrissey. Of course, Waits' recent, charmingly random mini-tour won't catapult him back into the public eye the way Modern Times will Dylan, but it reminds Tom devotees he's still quietly better — polite on record but bombastic on stage, gregarious and gruesome beneath horror-movie lighting and backed by a gloriously unhinged gore-jazz combo that breathes fresh zombie breath into death marches old and new.

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