"...that's why people say "Time Out Of Mind" is sort of dark and foreboding; because we locked into that one dimension in the sound. People say the record deals with mortality-my mortality for some reason. Well it doesn't deal with my mortality. It just deals with mortality in general. It's one thing we all have in common, isn't it? But I didn't see any one critic say; "It deals with my mortality" - you know, his own. As if he's immune in some kind of way- like whoever's writing about the record has got eternal life and the singer doesn't. I found this condescending attitude toward that record revealed in the press quite frequently, but, you know, nothing you can do about that." Bob Dylan, Rolling Stone interview September 2001.
In 1997 Bob Dylan did two memorable things, he nearly died from a rare cardiac fungal complaint and he released an astonishing album that would reinstate him as the foremost artist of the rock era. "Time Out Of Mind" is not happy listening, but it is compelling listening and on its release in September of that year it won for Dylan no fewer than three grammy awards. Containing the familiar themes of fractured relationships, betrayal and self examination, the album also carries a hefty dose of gloomy and morose preoccupation with death (oddly it was recorded and mixed before Dylan's illness so this aspect can only be seen as somewhat coincidental). Returning to Canadian producer Daniel Lanois with whom he had been so successful with 1989's "Oh Mercy" Dylan had a collection of songs that he felt were "...more concerned with the dread realities of life than the bright and rosy idealism popular today" and Lanois on hearing them felt they were hard, deep and desperate "...they came from having lived a number of lives, which I believe Bob has" he said. "Time Out Of Mind" is not however as pessimistic as it may first appear, indeed there is much humour to be found on the album, albeit not of the slap your thigh and roll around on the floor variety: this is particularly true of the closing song, the outrageous seventeen minute long "Highlands" by far the longest track that Dylan has ever committed to record. The album would prove to be the most important album of new material of Dylan's nineties output.
"Love Sick," with its drained and exhausted delivery very much sets the tone of the album. "I'm walking" croaks Dylan in a voice that sounds as if he has just stepped out of a crypt "through streets that are dead/Walking, walking with you in my head," he continues and we are listening to a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The voice that Dylan employs here must have come as a shock to anyone who had not heard this ravaged instrument for a while "We treated the voice almost like a harmonica when you overdrive it through a small guitar amplifier" explained Lanois and the effect is quite startling but it fits the song. "And the clouds are weeping" sings Dylan with impeccable timing, proving that the simplest metaphors are often the most effective. The imagery is compounded as he describes "...lovers in the meadow" and "...silhouettes in the window" painting himself as an outsider to these happy liaisons. "I'm sick of love..." he tells us, and as usual when Dylan is this up-front, we don't believe him. Soon we are back in the familiar territory of betrayal and deceit "Could you ever be true?/I think of you/And I wonder" but finally he has to give in to his real feelings "Just don't know what to do/I'd give anything to/Be with you." "Love Sick" was the album's single and became a concert favourite, it was also the song that Dylan performed at the 1998 Grammy Awards and had to endure the ignominy of a half naked idiot cavorting next to him with "Soy Bomb" painted on his chest.
"Dirt Road Blues" is a song that grew out of early sessions that Dylan had with some of the band members before Lanois joined up. It has a country-blues feel to it and the trademark Lanois echo on the vocal, and may well be Dylan paying tribute to Elvis, one of his early idols. The lyric is simple and the song, one of the least memorable on the album has all the elements of a country standard, dirt road, country shack and abandoned lover who is still in chains "'Til there's nothing left to see, 'til the chains have been shattered and I've been freed," and at the end our narrator has only one course of action open to him "I'm gonna have to put up a barrier to keep myself away from everyone."
The first few times I listened to this album I thought that "Standing In The Doorway" was the best track on it, and although it has been overtaken by a couple of others, it is still one of my favourites. Cindy Cashdollar's beautiful slide guitar gives this song an extra depth as Dylan performs a sensational vocal on this wonderfully emotive piece. The way he can't come to terms with his emotions on the line "Don't know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you" and the realization of "It probably wouldn't matter to you anyhow" is the very essence here, as is the line in the second verse "All the laughter is just making me sad" a major theme on the album of feeling like an outsider. The writing here is strong, and the lines "The ghost of our old love has not gone away/Don't look like it will anytime soon" perfectly illustrate where he is in terms of this relationship. The song has a satisfying length to it, something that Michael Gray calls "a pleasurable generosity" which it needs in order to explore the feelings fully, and there are some wonderful touches "Last night I danced with a stranger/But she just reminded me that you were the one" seems out of context for Dylan, yet at the same time so right. Also the unashamed borrowing of phrases and figures of speech seems acceptable here, none more so than "I'll eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm dry..." from the traditional "Moonshiner" which is followed with the decidedly archaic "And live my life on the square" but he closes with the warning that too much openness is not necessarily a good thing "I see nothing to be gained by any explanation/There are no words that need to be said" and even though he has admitted "I would be crazy if I took you back/It would go up against every rule" we get the distinct impression that he would, given the choice. "Standing In The Doorway" is one of the several really strong songs on the album that proved that Dylan was back at the peak of his craft, and writing some of the best lyrics of his lengthy career.
The mood is lifted a little with "Million Miles" a pleasant little rocker that has the echo on the vocal turned up too high. Dylan's voice was badly damaged by now, we all know that, but the previous track had proved that he could still hold his own in that department without over enhancement. The intensity of emotion is replaced with a little humour here "You took a part of me that I really miss" he begins, and continues with the sly dig "People ask about you; I didn't tell them everything I knew" which along with "You told yourself a lie; that's all right mama, I told myself one too" gives us some idea of the status of this relationship. Dylan revisits a sixties image ("Gates Of Eden") with the line "Throwing all my memories into a ditch so deep" but here it is him not facing up to his memories, not his lover with her dreams. There is more humour (a joke even!) in the sixth verse "The last thing you said before you hit the street/Gonna find me a janitor to sweep me off my feet" and the timing of his reply "I said, That's all right mama...you...you do what you gotta do" is again impeccable. If it were surrounded by weaker material, "Million Miles" would probably not seem so lightweight, as it is it provides some light relief in some very serious company.
"Tryin' To Get To Heaven" on the other hand is very serious indeed, and in terms of quality is second only to "Highlands." This is an absolutely superb song, from its claustrophobic opening "The air is getting hotter/There's a rumbling in the skies" Dylan's heart wrenchingly beautiful vocal forces you to listen and to be rewarded with some of his finest lyrics. "Every day your memory grows dimmer/It doesn't haunt me like it did before" he sings with a weary resignation that is almost palpable, and Lanois, to his credit, allowed Dylan's voice to be the main instrument here. Listen to the emotion in the lines "I've been walking through the middle of nowhere/Tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door" and you will know that you are in the presence of something special. "You broke a heart that loved you/Now you can seal up the book and not write anymore" and "When you think that you've lost everything/You find out you can always lose a little more" are among the best and most pertinent words that Dylan has ever written, but not only that, his delivery of them is done with a commitment that had been lacking in recent work, but he himself dismissed them with typical off-hand modesty "I don't think it eclipses anything from my earlier period" he said when discussing the album "But I think it might be shocking in its bluntness. There isn't any waste. There's no line that has to be there to get to another line." That aside, the passion is there for all to hear as Dylan tells us "Gonna sleep down in the parlor/And relive my dreams/I close my eyes and I wonder/If everything is as hollow as it seems" and we hear that the man who is "Tryin' to get to heaven before they close the door" is looking for his own personal peace and serenity.
Echo chamber is the order of the day again on "Til I Fell In Love With You" which is a shame, because you should not have to struggle to hear the words. "Well my nerves are exploding and my body's tense/I feel like the whole world got me pinned up against the fence" sings Dylan in what is by now a well established theme. The litany of accidents and misfortunes that have befallen him can be laid squarely at one door "I don't know what I'm gonna do/I was all right 'til I fell in love with you" and he even falls back on one faithful authority "But I know God is my shield and he won't lead me astray." But ultimately his problems are because of the girl who "...won't be back no more" and whose futile attempts to please were "...all in vain." Robert Christgau writing in the Village Voice probably said it best "Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated..." and although he was talking about the album as a whole, his sentiments seem to fit this song in particular.
"Not Dark Yet" proves the point that less is more. Another superb vocal performance and some wonderfully restrained musicianship combine to deliver one of the best tracks on the album. Keyboard player Jim Dickenson described the recording process as "...an hour to an hour and a half of chaos, and then like eight or ten minutes of just clarity and beauty. During that ten minutes we'd nail it to the wall" and this was obviously one of those periods. Cindy Cashdollar, whose slide guitar work added so much to the sound of the album said that Dylan's vocal on this track gave her goose bumps. If, as may have been the case, Dylan was reflecting on his own mortality then few lines would be better than the refrain "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there" and the feeling of not being able to see beauty in anything is perfectly described in the lines "Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain/Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain" This theme of despair and gloomy despondency is emphasised with "I've been down on the bottom in a world full of lies" and "Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear," and all from a man who must have had a serious change of heart, because by 2003 he was saying "Any day above the ground is a good day" "Not Dark Yet" is one of those songs that should not be over analysed, everything is in the writing and the performance, and it captures (I think) exactly where Dylan was when he recorded it.
"Cold Irons Bound" has some great writing, apparently completely rewritten in the studio, but is another song that suffers from too much echo. This song won a Grammy for Best Male Rock Vocal but a different treatment might have been an improvement, "I'm waist deep, waist deep in the mist/It's almost like, almost like I don't exist" sings Dylan in the familiar theme of alienation "I'm twenty miles out of town in cold irons bound." Poet Michael McClure has pointed out that the lyrics of "Time Out Of Mind" are composed largely of figures of speech, and this is particularly true of this song where Dylan talks of beauty decaying, shallow friendships and false or unrequited love. It's not an easy song to get to grips with and has an uneasy feel to it, especially with lines like "Oh, the winds in Chicago have torn me to shreds/Reality has always had too many heads/Some things last longer than you think they will/There are some kind of things that you can never kill" A far simpler (and some may say inferior) song is "Make You Feel My Love" which many have singled out as the "clunker" of the album (there usually is one), but it isn't as bad as most would have you believe (Garth Brooks recorded a version and took it to #1 in the Billboard country charts). Lazily written sure, with some repetitive lyrics, but its very charm lies in its simplicity. "When evening shadows and the stars appear/And there is no one there to dry your tears/I could hold you for a million years/To make you feel my love." However, it is the least convincing track on the album, and if it was to be included more time should have been spent on it, repeating the line "There's nothing that I wouldn't do" and using a lyric like "You ain't seen nothing like me yet" was probably not a good idea.
With the penultimate track "I Can't Wait" we find Dylan revisiting ideas and themes used in previous songs. "Some on their way up , some on their way down" has echoes of "Foot Of Pride" "Well your loveliness has wounded me, I'm reeling from the blow" has a distinct feel of "Mr. Tambourine Man" about it and "If I ever saw you coming I don't know what I would do" reminds one of a line in this album's earlier song "Standing In The Doorway." The problem that I have here is that the chorus line doesn't really bear any relation to the rest of the song. We are never sure what it is that he can't wait for, and the whole song seems like a collection of half formed ideas in search of a point. This is one instance when the world-weary gloominess of the album does not work, lines like "I'm doomed to love you, I've been rolling through stormy weather" and "While I'm strolling through the lonely graveyard of my mind" seem just a little too contrived. This may seem like a churlish criticism, but a point that has been made often in the past is that Dylan sets the bar so high that when he fails to reach it these failures seem magnified. However, an album of this length (seventy two minutes) might have benefited from the omission of this or the previous track.
And so we come to "Highlands," the song that may well go down as Dylan's magnum opus. Much has been made of the length of the song and Dylan himself commented that it was originally twice as long. At the recording sessions, when guitarist Duke Robillard asked Dylan if there was a shorter version he was told "That is the short version." Speaking personally, if it were twice as long I would be perfectly happy, I could listen to Dylan doing this sort of thing all day. Based loosely on a poem of the same name by Scottish poet Robert Burns, "Highlands" falls roughly into three sections and has a dreamlike, almost ethereal quality to it, which is enhanced by Dylan's slow almost spoken delivery. "Well my heart's in the Highlands gentle and fair/Honeysuckle blooming in the wildwood air/ Bluebells blazing, where the Aberdeen waters flow" is how Dylan sets the scene for this utopia, but he tells us he is not ready yet to go there "Well my heart's in the Highlands/I'm gonna go there when I feel good enough to go." He ponders on a mundane and prosaic existence before telling us that he feels "...like a prisoner in a world of mystery/I wish someone would come/And push back the clock for me" and dreams of following his heart but, "I can only get there one step at a time." The second section concerns the dreamily surreal encounter with a waitress in a Boston restaurant who insists on having him draw her picture because he's an artist, and refuses to take any of the several hints that he is not interested. The conversation drifts from the drawing, which he eventually does to her dissatisfaction "...that don't look a thing like me" to feminism in writing, where she forces him into admitting that he has read Erica Jong (Dylan laughed when he said her name and had to re-tape it). There is a suggestion during this section of the narrative that Dylan is highlighting his well known love of privacy, and when she is momentarily distracted he slips outside.
The third section of the song is the most poignant, with its long stream of consciousness pondering on the inevitability of growing old. "Well my heart's in the Highlands, with the horses and hounds/Way up in the border country, far from the towns/With the twang of the arrow and the snap of the bow/My heart's in the Highlands/Can't see any other way to go" is how Dylan brings us back to his idyllic dream., but again he is the outsider who "...must have made a few bad turns." He sees the attractive youngsters dressed in colourful clothes, enjoying themselves, and admits "Well I'd trade places with any of them/In a minute, if I could," but there is no bitterness here, just sadness. There is an almost tangible sorrow in the delivery of the line "The party's over, and there's less and less to say" and we find ourselves thinking of the irony of such a talent running out of things to say just as he reaches his peak, but thankfully that was not the case. The song ends on a wonderfully calm and peaceful note, "There's a way to get there, and I'll figure it out somehow/But I'm already there in my mind/And that's good enough for now" and after all the torment and inner anguish, we find a man at peace.
When the musical history of the twentieth century is written and Dylan takes his rightful place as the foremost contemporary lyricist of that century as he surely must, then it will be for songs like this that he will be remembered. As time takes its inevitable toll and his output lessens we should enjoy and appreciate this master craftsman.
With record company executives seemingly intent on crushing any form of creativity, talent or originality and throwing shedloads of money at an apparently endless array of homogeneous boy bands whose only gift is to look pretty on TV screens or in adverts for designer clothes or sunglasses, we may never see his like again.
On its release in September 1997 "Time Out Of Mind" was a great critical and commercial success. It was hailed as the comeback of an important artist, something of a surprise to those of us who weren't aware that he'd ever been away. The plaudits came thick and fast, Brian Appleyard writing in London's Sunday Times said "...he is the one true genius of popular music, the only pop artist who can stand comparison with the very greatest. I am, at last, unafraid to place him alongside Beckett and Stravinsky, Eliot and Matisse." Village Voice voted it their album of the year, saying of it "The timelessness people hear in it...is what Dylan has long aimed for-simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received," yet Greil Marcus a long time Dylan commentator writing in Mojo found it "...shocking in its bitterness, in its refusal of comfort or kindness." Dylan also graced the cover of Newsweek magazine for the first time since 1974 when he had emerged from semi retirement to storm across America in one of his most successful tours. As already stated, "Time Out Of Mind" was awarded three Grammies (Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for "Cold Irons Bound") and Dylan was generous in his praise of Lanois and the other musicians "We got a particular sound on this record which you don't get every day" he said of his producer, and of himself and his peers"...we didn't know what we had when we did it, but we did it anyway." "Time Out Of Mind" stands as one of the finest albums that Dylan has ever released and improves with each listening. Reviewing it in their November 1997 issue, Q magazine said "Teenagers will run screaming, but almost eight years into the decade, Bob Dylan has made his challenge. Don't expect too many follow-ups" Those words would come back to haunt them, because Dylan's next studio release, 2001's "Love And Theft" was, if anything an even better album and if he does nothing else (God forbid) these two albums firmly place Bob Dylan as a remarkable artist in his later years.