Alex Ross on Ain't Talkin'
“As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden / The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine.” As usual, it is the words that seize your attention first. “Ain’t Talkin’,” the last song on Bob Dylan’s deceptively mellow-sounding new album, “Modern Times,” places the listener in a landscape of sweet decay, as handsomely ruined as Dylan’s sixtysomething voice, populated by sick mules, blind horses, a missing gardener, nameless foes, some woman, and the walking, weeping, brooding, ironically smiling singer. The vocal line is threadbare: it consists of just five notes, the ancient pentatonic scale. But it is the unswerving sureness of the musical choices—guitars twisting like vines around plain chord changes, an intermittently keening cello, a steady pulse like dripping water—that holds you mesmerized. The protagonist seems to be searching for some sign of hope in the apocalyptic garden, and, at the last moment, he finds it: after eight minutes in the minor mode, and a sighing reference to the “world’s end,” a moonbeam falls in the form of a glowing major chord.
Read more about Ain't Talkin" on bobdylan.com
Alex Ross has been the music critic of The New Yorker since 1996. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Guardian First Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ross has received an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and honorary doctorates from the New England Conservatory and the Manhattan School of Music. In 2008, he was named a MacArthur Fellow, and in 2012 he will receive the Belmont Prize in Germany. His second book, Listen to This, appeared in 2010. He is also the co-editor, with Daphne Carr, of the 2011 edition of Best Music Writing. He is now working on a book entitled Wagnerism. A native of Washington DC, he now lives in Manhattan and is married to the filmmaker Jonathan Lisecki.
Originally published in The New Yorker on September 18, 2006.