“Ain’t Talkin’” is a supreme work, the last song in the sequence of Modern Times. Released in 2006, it is one of a few songs on our list released in the 21st century and the most recent one in Dylan’s catalog that we will be considering. Modern Times is a mixed bag of a record, filled with rewrites of old blues songs and brittle ballads. The diminishment of Modern Times lies with the band. Whereas the band on “Love and Theft” from five years earlier play with power as well as tenderness from jump blues to Hoagy Carmichael-type ballads, the Modern Times band is limited with less dynamic range. That changes on “Ain’t Talkin’’’ as the accompaniment provides a gentle yet haunting background; the right touches of fiddle, minimal guitar fills, and a relentless, blasted groove. The pace of the drumming reminds us that the narrator is “just walkin’”, a walk that never stops. And why would you want to stop? It is a cursed landscape with “wounded flowers…dangling from the vines.” Though we are in the “mystic garden”, its beauty is wild, overgrown since “the gardener is gone.”
The melody and minor key of “Ain’t Talkin’” recalls the old cowboy song “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.”
It’s a song about a cowboy who catches a glimpse of a group of doomed cattle and cowboys, cursed to ride forever in the sky. The original cowboy is told that he can avoid their fate of hell in the sky by changing his ways. That choice is not offered to the narrator of “Ain’t Talkin’.” He prays to his mother and says that he is trying to love his neighbors and do good unto others, but, “mother, things ain’t going well.”
The feel and language of “Ain’t Talkin’ evokes the work of Cormac McCarthy, especially his book Blood Meridian. Set in the 19th century in what is now the American Southwest and Mexico, Blood Meridian tells the story of a nameless kid who takes up with a band whose mission is to scalp as many Natives as possible for bounty. The degraded nature of their mission and the callousness with which the band treats others is depicted by McCarthy as an inevitable violence inherent in humanity, part of our path through life. We see that same hopelessness in “Ain’t Talkin’.” Dylan says that “They’ll be no mercy for you once you’ve lost” and that “The whole world is filled with speculation” and that people won’t even let you think and reflect on your actions as “They will tear your mind away from contemplation / They will jump on your misfortune when you’re down.” Even the bloodlust of McCarthy’s band is found in “Ain’t Talkin’.” Despite dry lips and tears in his eyes, the narrator says that “If I catch my opponents ever sleepin’ / I’ll just slaughter them where they lie.”
Let’s talk about Dylan’s voice. There will be some who won’t want to read anything having to do with Bob Dylan because of his voice. It’s gone through many changes over the years, serving Dylan well at times and poorly at others. In “Ain’t Talkin’” we’ve reached a place where his instrument and the subject being sung about come together. It is the voice of someone who is “carrying a dead man’s shield” while “walking through the cities of the plague.” This voice is someone who has traveled through a dusty, burnt, disease-ridden landscape. The material requires this ravaged voice, not a technically proficient one.
“Ain’t Talkin’” is a tale of revenge, power, loss, and resignation throughout until the very end of the song. Dylan sings the chorus: “Heart burnin’, still yearnin’ / In the last outback, at the world’s end.” The narrator has traveled until the literal end of the world. There is absolutely nothing left. The band, which has been playing in a minor key throughout, ends the song on a major chord. The cynicism and hopelessness which we felt in “Ain’t Talkin’” are gone. With the world’s end, everything has burned away into something new.
“Ain’t Talkin’” is a major statement and could be the sole reason Dylan recorded Modern Times. Perhaps Dylan wrote “Ain’t Talkin’” first and wrote and recorded the rest of the album to ensure he could put out this power piece of writing, fitting in perfectly as the last statement on the album.
Photo by: Scott Bunn