Before Time Out of Mind
was released in late 1997, the overall view was that Bob Dylan was finished.
His last two studio albums (1992’s Good as I Been to You
and 1993’s World Gone Wrong
) were both entire albums of folk covers and, well, both were good, but neither was necessarily anything to write home about. And his last studio album of original material, 1990’s Under the Red Sky
, was flat-out awful, maybe one of the two or three worst of his career, and it even featured guest appearances from Slash and Elton John, so he was clearly open to anything.
What made all of these sub-par releases even more irritating was that, in 1989, Dylan released Oh Mercy
, which was arguably his best effort since 1975’s Blood on the Tracks
So in 1997, there he was, nothing more than a joke to everyone but his hardcore fans, and what does he do? He releases the haunting, beautiful Daneil Lanois-produced Time Out of Mind
. the album that is actually
his best since Blood on the Tracks
“Haunting" is an adjective I could use a lot in this review. I’ll try to avoid it, though. Let’s go ahead and do this track-by-track, shall we?
1. Love Sick
Dylan has always been able to open an album with a bang. “Blowin’ in the Wind," “The Times They Are A-Changin’," “All I Really Wanna Do," “Subterranean Homesick Blues," “Like A Rolling Stone," “Rainy Day Woman # 12 & 35," “Girl From the North Country" with Johnny Cash, hell, even “All the Tired Horses" and “Let’s Stick Together," all of these album openers are highlights of their respective albums. “Love Sick" is no different. First, you hear a haunting (there’s that word again!) guitar, and its quickly followed by Dylan, his voice more ragged than its ever sounded, delivering some of the best lyrics of his career, which is saying a hell of a lot:
I'm walking through streets that are dead
Walking, walking with you in my head
My feet are so tired, my brain is so wired
And the clouds are weeping
This isn’t just some song Dylan wrote on his tour bus while he was trying to find his muse, no, this is poetry
, people, this is really damn good poetry
. This, friends, is Dylan getting back to what he does best. And the song only gets better, with Dylan’s delivery and the power of his lyrics grabbing you and never, ever letting go.
Musically, it’s a simple outing. There’s some keyboards and some guitar work, but the guitars are slow and not playing anything even remotely challenging. It’s all about Dylan’s voice on this one. 5/5
2. Dirt Road Blues
How does Dylan follow up one of the best songs of his career? He plays a simple, almost generic blues song, that’s how! But don’t worry, folks, this is good stuff.
Anyone that has heard 2001’s excellent Love & Theft
knows what to expect here … some nice, slick work by the band and Dylan delivering lyrics that, well, don’t necessarily mean much, but do blues songs ever make sense? You know the story, he says one thing, repeats it once, says something different and then the band jams. Its good, don’t get me wrong, but one of the least significant songs on the album. 3.5/5
3. Standing in the Doorway
After getting listeners dancing with “Dirt Road Blues," Dylan decides to go back to the slow, sad style of “Love Sick." “Standing in the Doorway" is real
slow, especially considering that its seven minutes of pretty much the same thing, but that isn’t really a complaint.
Remember those weird rumors about Dylan getting AIDS? Well, if you don’t, they certainly existed back in the day and this song, as well as “Trying to Get to Heaven," were reasons people had for believing the rumors. His lyrics are depressing and his delivery sounds like he could break down at any moment. Really, though, this is more a tale about Dylan losing a close friend:
Last night I danced with a stranger
But she just reminded me you were the one
You left me standing in the doorway crying
In the dark land of the sun
Damn, Bob! I’m going to tear up just typing all of that out. Anyway, this song is probably too long, but its good and I wouldn’t have it any other way. 4/5
4. Million Miles
“Million Miles" is good, but there honestly isn’t a whole lot to say. Time Out of Mind
, except for “Dirt Road Blues" and “Cold Irons Bound" follows a really close pattern, and “Million Miles" is just a continuation of what “Love Sick" and “Standing in the Doorway" started. Good, but not essential. 3/5
5. Trying to Get to Heaven
OK, this is where even I could admit Dylan sounds like he is about to die, though it doesn’t really make me think he has AIDs or anything. That is really a bit bizarre. “Trying to Get to Heaven," is about, well, trying to get to heaven “before they close the door." Yeah, you thought “Standing in the Doorway" was sad?
Time Out of Mind
isn’t a fun listen, in case you couldn’t already tell. But the lyrics are all top-notch and his voice really sounds terrific throughout. His delivery on “Trying to Get to Heaven" is outstanding, even if the lyrics are horribly depressing. And its got some nice harmonica, you can’t go wrong with harmonica on a Dylan track. Great song. 4/5
6. Til I Fell in Love with You
OK, at this point, you might get a tad tired of the long songs that move at a slow pace. “Til I Fell in Love with You" is more of the same, yes, but it really is a great track. I’ve seen it live, and he changed it around and kicked my face in with it, so I think I might like this track more than the average listener. So, uh, just don’t start with this song or anything. Its good, but it won’t grab you like th others. 3.5/5
7. Not Dark Yet
Remember “Love Sick" and how much I praised it? Well, “Not Dark Yet" is better. It’s the center of Time Out of Mind
, the highlight, the standout track, whatever you want to call it.
I hate to go on too much about it, just read these lyrics, people!
Shadows are falling and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there
Great stuff, eh? I own every
Dylan album and I’ve seen him live 10 times and the guy still has the power to blow me away. A lot of older artists have made songs like this, but Dylan did it the best right here.
If anyone was thinking this album might not be all that great because of the few songs in a row that I didn’t give great scores, think again. Because we have a 5/5 right here, an A +, a perfect score no matter what you’re grading scale happens to be. 5/5
8. Cold Irons Bound
Though “Cold Irons Bound" still takes a slow, unhurried pace, this track flat-out rocks
and the creepy production actually sort of reminds me of Tom Waits’ “Earth Died Screaming" from Bone Machine
, but that might just be me. The organ sounds like it came straight out of a funeral service, Dylan’s delivery is once again brilliant and the percussion is simple, but focused and raw.
Oh, and if you’ve seen “Masked and Anonymous," he plays a stripped-down version of this in the film. It’s a great, great song. 4.5/5
9. To Make You Feel My Love
Bob Dylan fans tend to hate this song as much as anything he ever recorded. Maybe because it’s a direct love song, with lyrics that don’t hide the singer’s feelings? Maybe because it’s a little cheesy? Probably a bit of both, to be honest, but I don’t care.
Especially on an album as murky as Time Out of Mind
, I have no problem with “To Make You Feel My Love" coming along and reminding the listener that Dylan doesn’t necessarily always think his life is about to end. Its good, ignore the critics. 4/5
10. I Can’t Wait
After three straight songs that weren’t super slow and super simple, we get “I Can’t Wait," which, musically, sounds just like “Million Miles" or “Til I Fell in Love with You."
The difference here, though, and thank goodness there is a difference, is that Dylan’s delivery is almost playful, maybe even a bit cheerful. Of course, there are still lyrics here that play on themes of life and death, but there’s also another layer of mischief. It helps “I Can’t Wait" stand on its own and, really, it save it from being the worst song on the album. 3.5/5
“Highlands" is over 16 minutes long and features 20 stanzas, all of them telling a story that seems to be about Dylan, well, just sort of hanging out. He references Neil Young, saying he likes listening to him loud, and that alone will put a smile on your face.
To be honest, “Highlands" follows the same basic formula as much of the album. It certainly takes its time and Dylan’s delivery is as rugged as it is on the rest of the album. But there’s something different here, something I can’t quite put my finger on.
Like “I Can’t Wait," the song seems almost playful, and part of the song features him teasing a waitress while ordering, of all things, soft-boiled eggs. Of course, he probably only orders the eggs because he wanted something to rhyme with his comment about the woman’s legs, but that’s beside the point, dammit! The man is having some fun!
Maybe because of its length, “Highlands" is a definite album highlight. You put it on and, instead of actually doing anything else, you just listen to him telling his story, laughing at his little half-jokes and wondering what the hell he’s doing singing a 16-minute song about nothing. But it works and it works really well. 5/5
Overall, Time out of Mind
is one of the strongest albums of Dylan’s career. It doesn’t come close to his mid-60s trilogy, or Blood on the Tracks
, but its easily on that second tier of Dylan albums, right beside The Times They Are A-Changin’
and Love & Theft
Go find it and give it a listen!