CK Retro Review: Time Out Of Mind by Bob DylanPosted: July 17, 2013
He went through writer’s block, damn near died, and came out on the other end of a seven-year hiatus from songwriting with the Grammy Album of the Year. There are arguably better Bob Dylan albums than 1997’s Time Out Of Mind, but perhaps none more important in his winding road of a career. Hooking up again with producer Daniel Lanois, Dylan stopped worrying about sounding even remotely modern, wrote direct lyrics that revealed his alienation from the world around him and dug deeper than they had in years, and found the basic template that he would use for a string of late-career triumphs. Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “Million Miles”- Some critics retroactively snipe at Lanois for his proactive production style, but I would argue that the only song which he hinders on the collection is this one. The lounge act from hell vibe is better suited to Tom Waits. Dylan bears some of the blame too, because this is also his least memorable set of lyrics on the album.
10. “Dirt Road Blues”- Once again with blood in his eyes, Dylan finds himself on an unending thoroughfare in the middle of all manner of precipitation still “looking for the sunny side of love.” It’s not the most original blues he’s ever written, but it has the hazy, ancient ambience of an old 45 unearthed from some time capsule. Heck, he could have released it on World Gone Wrong under some generic blues alias and no one would have been the wiser.
9. “’Til I Fell In Love With You”- Musically, this is a little cheekier than some of the others, with trebly guitar playing off the jaunty piano rolls. Dylan finds himself in the midst of that age-old paradox of needing the one thing that causes him the most pain, which is the love of the woman he’s addressing here. Some great lines throughout, such as his deadpan assessment of his agenda in the final verse: “If I’m still among the living, I’ll be Dixie bound.”
8. “Can’t Wait”- Polyrhythms are usually associated with something jazzy and uptempo, but here they serve a tepid pace that ratchets up the tension that bedevils the narrator. “The lonely graveyard of my mind” is quite the evocative phrase that captures the miserable limbo the narrator inhabits. Dylan never says what it is that his protagonist can’t wait to do, but, judging by the ornery growl in his voice, it’s not going to be a Candygram delivery.
7. “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”- “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands” was allegedly the jumping-off point for the arrangement here, and you can hear a bit of that in the high hat-heavy patter kept up by whichever of the multiple drummers for the Time Out Of Mind sessions happened to be miked up that day. What ends up standing out on the recording is Dylan’s see-sawing harmonica that moans its way through the instrumental parts. “When you think that you’ve lost everything/You find out you can always lose a little more,” Dylan sings, but he could have wailed on that harmonica for six minutes in place of the lyrics and we would have caught his drift just fine.
6. “Cold Irons Bound”- A sly bass line, distorted flashes of guitar, Augie Meyers’ horror-movie organ: It all adds up to one surprisingly funky rendering of a dude in a metaphorical prison. Dylan’s lines don’t seem like much on the page, but when he sings them against that rhythmic backdrop, every rhyme carries undeniable force. Again, if we’re going to hammer Lanois for the missteps, and there really are only a few on the two albums he helmed, we should acknowledge when he brings something special to the table. “Cold Irons Bound” is definitely one of those times.
5. “Standing In The Doorway”- Time Out Of Mind has the reputation as being a mournful album, yet that doesn’t hold water when you listen to it; the music, especially, is a bit feistier than all that for the most part. That said, “Standing In The Doorway” is definitely a wallow, all sighing guitars that seem barely energetic enough to propel Dylan along. The lyrics speak of the narrator’s profound disorientation within his environment, yet you get the feeling it would be bearable to him if his woman hadn’t left him behind. It may not be a happy song, but it’s an exquisite downer for sure.
4. “Make You Feel My Love”- Many critics have their way with the surface simplicity of this song. I will defend it with a two-pronged attack. First, if there is a slight, overarching problem with Time Out Of Mind, it’s that it can feel at times like one long first-person lament of a song with changing tempos. “Make You Feel My Love” breaks that up, both in terms of its optimistic lyrics and its unassuming music, which gets a boon from Bob’s charming piano work. Second, there is no sin in valuing songcraft over complexity every now and again, and this song shows Dylan mastering adult contemporary without losing a bit of his songwriting spirit in the process.
3. “Love Sick”- “I’m walking through streets that are dead.” That’s a pretty ominous introduction to an album, and it effectively sums up the landscape that Dylan’s various doppelgangers traverse for the rest of the album. The sound isn’t vintage or modern; it’s like a slow dance in purgatory. Staccato stabs of organ and guitar eventually make enough room for Jim Dickinson to stroll through the carnage with his electric piano. Dylan’s lyrics are spare but every single word hits home. An unused lyric found on his official website says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under.” That a succinct summation of the narrator’s plight on this striking opening track.
2. “Highlands”- Autobiographical? Maybe. It certainly sounds Bob had a tape recorder playing in his head and recorded his thoughts on a 16-minute stretch of a random day. His musings run from hilarious to heartbreaking, he name-drops Erika Jong and Neil Young, he verbally spars with a snappy waitress, but mostly he just ambles, “drifting from scene to scene” as he puts it. The music barely rises above a low rumble, which seems right considering the narrator’s poor hearing. For all his trivial travails and inner longing, he still finds comfort in the thought of the Highlands, a kind of happy place where he see himself ending up. Maybe this song meanders, but it eventually makes its way to the heart.
1. “Not Dark Yet”- First of all, it’s a gorgeous piece of music, a march that wends its way wearily, the acoustic guitars striving for transcendence while the slide sighs as if resigned to its fate. The context of the song’s release, in the wake of Dylan’s illness, made it seem like it was about death, but I’ve never read it that way. To me, it’s about reaching an end of expectations, of hopes, of the kind of positive energy that makes like enjoyable. The narrator is heartbroken by his own indifference to his surroundings, wondering how it all came to this, how even prayers don’t reach him anymore. Not just the best song on the album, but one of the crowning achievements of Dylan’s career.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For a more in-depth look at the songs of Bob Dylan, check out my the link below to my book Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs, now available at all major online booksellers and at a bookstore near you.)