A far more vulnerable Dylan wrestles advancing age, hard boiled eggs and love
After a string of good to not so good albums, few fans would have bet on Bob releasing a classic so late in his career. But that he did, surprising everyone, probably even Dylan himself. With Daniel Lanois (U2, Eno) in the producer’s chair, Time Out Of Mind has a sad, forlorn feel to it, as if the world’s most iconic troubadour is trying to say that there is little left to look forward to, now that age has begun to creep up on him. Jim Dickinson (piano), Duke Robillard (guitar) and Augie Myers (organ) are there to lend their considerable experience, helping to give the LP an old world feel.
Admittedly, the man’s voice is a bit on the gruff side, even by his standards, though is more than an appropriate fit for the material, giving each tune a certain texture and realism. Take opener “Love Sick”, with its funereal sounding atmospherics, and Bob’s gravelly half-foot-in-the-grave vocals, where he tells us that he is “sick of love” while walking through “streets that are dead” (haven’t we all been there).
But it’s not all depressing. “Dirt Road Blues” is an enjoyable, if slight Sam Phillips inspired rockabilly number, while “Standing in the Doorway” and “Million Miles” has Dylan “walkin’ through the summer nights” with a “jukebox playing low” (on the former), and “Driftin’ in and out of dreamless sleep” (on the latter). Both are concerned with the theme of love, one of Dylan’s favourite topics, although by now is gone the vitriol of former years (“Idiot Wind”, “Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat” etc), instead replaced with a far more passive reflection on the subject, as is the tender “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, where Bob’s voice creaks and croaks like an old wooden door with rusty hinges.
“Til I Fell In Love With You” is a moody piece, once again concerned with, you guessed it, love. Here he narrates a story perhaps best suited to someone half his age: “When I’m gone/You will remember my name/I’m gonna win my way/To wealth and fame. On “It’s Not Dark Yet”, Dylan sounds like a tired old man pondering over his own mortality, which isn’t surprising, considering that he had been hospitalised in March ’97 with a heart condition. Therefore when he sings “Shadows are falling, and I’ve been here all day/It’s too hot to sleep/Time is running away,” one can’t help but get a real sense of the man speaking in first person.
How Dylan won a grammy for Best Vocal Performance for “Cold Irons Bound” is beyond me, yet that he did. And whether you agree with him receiving the award or not doesn’t really matter, because it’s one of the finest cuts of the record, and just the sort of shuffling blues-rock one might expect to hear in some sleazy bar at the bitter end of town. “Make You Feel My Love” could have been written by Neil Young, a gentle ballad albeit one which may have the listener pressing the fast forward button thanks to Bob’s chocolate box lyrics (“When the 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”).
In the opening verse of the near surreal and hypnotic “Can’t Wait” Dylan is “tryin’ to walk the line”, “looking for anything that will bring a happy glow/Night or day”. But of course the track which garnered the majority of attention was “Highlands”, a sixteen plus minute epic, and one which could serve as a window into his then state of mind, most particularly the lines “Feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery/I wish someone would come/And push back the clock for me”, before towards the end he intones “The sun is beginning to shine on me/But it’s not like the sun that used to be/The party’s over and there’s less and less to say/I got new eyes/Everything looks far away”. No doubt this is a song which might easily have lasted another thirty minutes and the listener wouldn’t even notice, such is the relaxed, drifty ambience throughout.
With Time Out Of Mind Dylan succeeded in delivering his finest work in nearly a decade. At long last, it appeared that Bob had rediscovered his creative mojo, only this time, he was clearly determined not to let it go, as evidenced on albums such as 2001’s Love And Theft, 2006’s Modern Times, and Shadows In The Night, released in 2015 (however I would advise the listener to avoid Christmas In The Heart, unless you want to scare the kiddies).
The album is not completely without its troughs, although the peaks, when they emerge, are very high indeed. Out of all his LPs of the last twenty-five years (not including any of the Bootleg Series), Time is the one the listener is most likely to return to.